JANA WENDT: Brendon Christian, thank you very much for joining Dateline.


Do you believe that President Mbeki has had a genuine change of heart here?

BRENDON CHRISTIAN, SOUTH AFRICA`S AIDS LEGAL NETWORK: No. I`m not too keen just to hop on the bandwagon in that regard. I think that the President`s comments certainly around whether HIV causes AIDS whether anti-retroviral drugs is the intervention that we should be making in sub-Saharan Africa with respect to treating persons with an underlying HIV infection. I can`t see how in such short period of time you would have an about-turn by the President in this regard. My own sense that in light of the fact that the argument is coming before the constitutional court on 2 and 3 May, but also more broadly, the pressure that has been brought to bear by activists such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the Legal Resources Centre, the AIDS Law Project, the AIDS Legal Network and so forth. I think it is because of concerted pressure on government that you are seeing Mbeki distancing himself from his initial comments around HIV.

JANA WENDT: But I imagine from your perspective then the President has made this turnaround for all the wrong reasons because up until this time he`s been arguing that some of these drugs are toxic and ineffective – that`s the case, isn`t it?

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: Exactly. What we saw…the former president Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even the ANC executive in recent weeks, stating how damaging this is for the ANC both internationally and domestically. I would certainly applaud the Health Minister as well as Mbeki when I actually see a full rollout of nevirapine at public health level in all state hospitals in the country. But until such time, I believe that what is actually taking place is the President is just granting lip service to pressure that is being pressed on the ANC.

JANA WENDT: But you are sceptical here, but what would be the point of the South African Government at this stage backtracking on a decision that is being so closely watched by the international community?

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: I think that is the crux of it – the fact that there is so much pressure on the ANC. You know, the Pretoria High Court has come out unanimously as has the constitutional court with respect to the execution of the Pretoria High Court`s order. So there is a court order in place which the Government has to comply with, bear that in mind. As well as, for instance, former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who have always been vocal in terms of stressing the need for the ANC Government to deliver with respect to persons living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa accessing nevirapine and anti-retrovirals in more broader context.

JANA WENDT: In a way, Brendon, you`re saying that President Mbeki has been embarrassed into this turnaround. His stand up to this point really has baffled many people in the world. He has chosen to run against the scientific mainstream. Do you have any insights into how it is that a man like Mr Mbeki can have held this view for so long?

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: Jana, the reasons differ. My own particular perspective is that this has been one of the ANC`s most fundamental political errors. What we are seeing – and, you know, I`ve discussed this with colleagues extensively – no-one seems to understand why you would have an extremely intelligent individual like Mbeki offering the utterances that he is. And the schools of thought range from what the President requires – a very good grounding around the basic facts concerning the basic science of the transmission of this retrovirus. And the other school of thought that is saying that Mbeki is informed and that is why he does not want to buy into conventional western intervention surrounding anti-retroviral therapies and so forth, given the particular sub-type that we see in sub-Saharan Africa. What particularly concerns me in person is the fact that the prominence domestically and internationally that these utterances have received. Certainly my sense of it is what is taking place in prominent ANC circles is that this seems to be the prevailing school of thought, i.e. buying into these pseudo-scientific writings, which they all are accepting, and we what we`re seeing – for instance, Professor William Makgoba, who is the head of MRC, came out clearly and said, “Hang on a second, there is a sound international medical jurisprudence to the effect that HIV does indeed and in fact cause AIDS.” It is these sorts of recognitions that the President is now finally coming around with respect to delivery, of nevirapine in particular.

JANA WENDT: So we`re talking about this particular drug nevirapine here which relates to pregnant women with HIV infection so that the infection is not passed on to their children. But, of course, there are many other categories of HIV-infected people.

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: Absolutely, absolutely.

JANA WENDT: What do you as a legal activist intend to do from this point on to help these other people?

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: I think that is a fundamentally crucial point, and often we lose sight of that. The fact that nevirapine as an anti-retroviral, it by 50% reduces the possibility of transmission of this virus from mother to child. There is still a large majority of persons living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa who are not accessing treatment. And what we are finding in governments where there is informed, concerted, constructive, political intervention, there is also a need to assist those governments in terms of the delivery of anti-retrovirals, perhaps generics as well at public health level.

JANA WENDT: And Brendon Christian, just very quickly, with the dispute over this particular issue and the availability of cheaper, generic drugs that you mentioned just there, sections of the research community seem to be saying that they are going to turn their backs on AIDS-related research. Now, would this not hurt the very people that you are trying to help?

BRENDON CHRISTIIAN: That is extremely concerning. My sense that there has to be, there is still a great deal to be done with respect to the provision of anti-retroviral therapies and in this regard everyone is required to actually chip in. My sense is that what you are going to be seeing, multinational – certainly I hope this will happen in South Africa in light of the ANC`s recent comments – a multinational sitting down with governments to look at, you know, comparative pricing, two-tiered pricing, transparent pricing systems being placed, and offering drugs at public health level which are affordable to governments in these developing countries to ensure we respond concertedly and constructively to the particular pandemic.

JANA WENDT: Brendon Christian, we have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time.

Brendon Christian Interview