JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In a letter to world leaders published Wednesday, President Thabo Mbeki compared the criticism of his AIDS policies to the censorship of political ideas under apartheid.
Mbeki also argued that since HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is spread mostly through heterosexual contact in Africa, the continent's problems are unique.
"In the West, HIV-AIDS is said to be largely homosexually transmitted, it is reported that in Africa, including our country, it is transmitted heterosexually," said the letter, dated April 3. "Accordingly, as Africans, we have to deal with this uniquely African catastrophe."
Presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana said Wednesday that Mbeki sent the letter to President Clinton and other world leaders "to explain his position because the reports that have been in the media have either been misleading or inaccurate."
Besides detailing the country's efforts to battle the epidemic that has infected one in 10 South Africans, Mbeki also defended South Africa's contacts with scientists who argue that AIDS is not caused by HIV, and that AZT, a medication commonly used to treat AIDS, does more harm than good.
"Not long ago, in our own country, people were killed, tortured, imprisoned and prohibited from being quoted in private and public because the established authority believed that their views were dangerous and discredited," Mbeki wrote in the letter made public Wednesday by the Washington Post.
"We are now being asked to do precisely the same thing that the racist apartheid tyranny we opposed did, because it is said, there exists a scientific view that is supported by the majority, against which dissent is prohibited."
Asked whether Mbeki believes that HIV causes AIDS, Mankahlana said: "You are asking me an irrelevant question that is not important for me to answer."
Dr. Malegapuru Makgoba, president of South Africa's Medical Research Council, said the letter saddened him.
"I think we are just creating (an image of) ourselves as an embarrassment to the world," he said.
Makgoba said government officials were undermining South Africa's efforts to combat the epidemic.
"The scientific evidence about these issues is so clear that one is really surprised that we spend so much time and energy having a heated argument about something that is very straightforward," he said.
The letter was meant to mobilize international activism, Mankahlana said.
The controversy comes as South Africa is preparing for its role as host to July's international AIDS 2000 conference, to be held in Durban. South African and British media have reported that some scientist might refuse to attend the conference.