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Millions spent on warships and nothing for AIDS drugs

FORTY per cent of first-year students at the University of Cape Town are HIV-positive. In five years' time, there will be 2 million Aids orphans in South Africa.

The issue is being addressed next week by a special session of the United Nations to galvanise international action to combat the global epidemic.

But, in South Africa, while President Thabo Mbeki continues to deny any connection between HIV and Aids, the actor and stand-up comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys has taken matters into his own hands.

"This is no time to be polite; the house is on fire," he said. Best known for his comic creation Evita Bezuidenhout, his impersonation of an Afrikaner matron he has just completed a tour of 160 South African schools, performing free to 300,000 young people, black and white, Asian and "coloured".

There is a waiting list of 400 schools and he has received requests for visits from all the countries bordering South Africa.

He said: "I tell them I'm just an ordinary person, not a medical expert like President Mbeki. That breaks the ice, but I don't linger on what's not working. I tell them the first virus was apartheid. There was no cure for 40 years, but now we have democracy, even if it isn't perfect. Hypocrisy and fear are funny."

Usually, the audience will have seen him on television and know that he is gay. Gradually, he transforms hiself into "Evita", talks openly about condoms, tells them there is no need for anyone to have sex if they don't want to - this often brings cheers from the girls - and makes them laugh. Afterwards, he gives them his address and receives hundreds of messages, questions, poems and drawings.

"I am very optimistic. This generation has a future, but if they make a mistake on a Friday or Saturday night, they will lose everything. And you can't begin too early. I met a boy of nine who is a father.

"It is also important to make it clear that Aids is not a death sentence - although many cannot afford the cocktail of drugs. Meanwhile, the Government spends seven billion rand (pound;620 million) on warships."

Some Government efforts to address the problem have been worse than useless: in 1999, 40 million free condoms were distributed, stapled to a card.

Although other politicians do not agree with Thabo Mbeki, no one is speaking out. Pieter-Dirk Uys took his show to parliament. No one laughed at the Mbeki line - he was watching elsewhere on closed-circuit television - but private reactions were encouraging.

When the health minister came to watch his show in a school, she said: "If only there were more of you." He replied: "Thank God there are not more of you."

Pieter Dirk-Uys performs at London's Tricycle Theatre from June 29

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