Barack Obama, the only black U.S. senator, criticised South African leaders on Monday for their slow response to AIDS, saying they were wrong to contrast "African science and Western science."
AIDS activists say Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is creating deadly confusion by pushing traditional medicines and a recipe of garlic, beetroot, lemon and African potatoes to combat AIDS while underplaying the role of ARVs.
"The minister of health here has tended to equate traditional medicines to anti-retrovirals (ARV), so on the treatment side the information being provided by the minister of health is not accurate," he said.
"It is not an issue of Western science versus African science, it is just science and it's not right," Obama told reporters outside an AIDS clinic in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township.
Tshabalala-Msimang has frequently questioned the efficacy and safety of ARVs and says her approach is aimed at promoting basic nutrition as a bulwark against becoming ill.
South African epidemic
South Africa has one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS caseloads with one out of nine people -- or five million South Africans -- infected.
The government relented to pressure in 2003 and launched a public ARV programme which officials describe as one of the largest in the world. But activists say drugs still only reach a fraction of those living with AIDS, which still kills more than 800 South Africans every day.
Speaking during the South African leg of an African tour, Obama -- an Illinois Democrat whose father was Kenyan -- said the battle against AIDS was being confounded by denial both within black communities and by the government.
"I think that is something that is going to have to be addressed, you have got enormous infection rates (but) there is not enough public education," he said.
There had to be a fundamental change in behaviour and that change would not happen until the leadership stood up and spoke about the importance of safe sex practices.
Men, in particular, needed to be better educated about the risk they posed to women through unprotected sex, Obama said, adding he hoped to pass this message onto Mbeki and other government ministers.
Obama met health workers at the clinic and talked to HIV infected mothers linked to Mothers2Mothers, a U.S.-sponsored support programme to help stop the transmission of HIV to babies.