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South African Village, Fearing AIDS, Trusts God More Than Drugs

August 13, 2002

The faithful believe he is a prophet, a savior, and a man of miracles who can stop the plague that is killing the poor, rural village of Hlabisa, South Africa. He is the Rev. Solomon Mahlangu of God's Plan Church. A former driving instructor who wears French suits, leather shoes and an air of prosperity that is as intoxicating as fine cologne, Mahlangu claims that his healing hands have exorcized wayward spirits and, most importantly, cured dozens of people suffering from AIDS.

In this community where about 35 percent of adults are believed to be infected with HIV, he needs no advertisements. When Thembalihle Xulu, 29, stood before the congregation last year and announced that Mahlangu had cured him of AIDS, the news spread like wildfire.

Today, scores of people give their trust and their pennies to a man who promises to do what the government is still struggling to do: help this community cope with its deadly scourge. Where most clinics run short of even the most basic medicines, it is easier to believe in a miracle worker than in the possibility that the government might provide AIDS drugs.

Mahlangu says prayer is the best protection from HIV. Ellen Dube, an overworked AIDS counselor at Hlabisa Hospital, remains unconvinced, contending Mahlangu is a charlatan who uses the AIDS epidemic to get rich. She begs her clients to continue to use condoms. But some of her clients refuse to listen, and some have already died. "HIV-positive people who have supported him, they are dying now," Dube said, referring to Mahlangu. "He says that by praying they are going to survive, but they are just dying."

Mahlangu acknowledged that some of his parishioners have died, but he said it is because they sought advice from traditional healers and ancestors, which made God angry. He has already enlarged his church three times in the past year to accommodate his growing flock. Mahlangu dismisses his critics, saying he is offering people with HIV something the naysayers cannot: hope.

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Excerpted from:
New York Times
08.10.02; Rachel L. Swarns

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