Nozipho Bhengu died on Friday at the age of 32, one of about 900 South Africans killed each day by an epidemic infecting about one in five of the adult population, the highest caseload in the world.

The spat over Bhengu's death highlights the continued politicisation of Aids treatment in South Africa, where the government only bowed to public pressure in 2003 to begin a public anti-retroviral programme.

Bhengu was one of the few high-profile South Africans to live openly with the disease after her mother, Ruth Bhengu, then a legislator for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) made her status public in 2001.

"She succumbed to public, family and denialist pressure"

Treatment Action Campaign

The activist Treatment Action Campaign, which has locked horns with Mbeki's government over the issue of Aids treatment, said on Wednesday that Bhengu's death was premature, unnecessary and a result of confused government policy on the epidemic.

"It is highly likely that she would be alive today if she had chosen to take antiretroviral treatment when she developed Aids," the campaign said in a statement.

Hostility

Bhengu, who had left the TAC, opted to follow a treatment regime based on lemon and garlic that has been backed by South Africa's health minister, long accused by activists of hostility to anti-retroviral drugs.

"She succumbed to public, family and denialist pressure," the TAC statement said.

"It was her democratic right not to use anti-retrovirals."

Bhengu family spokesman

Bhengu's family on Wednesday responded angrily, accusing the TAC of using their tragedy to further its political agenda, which often includes sharp criticism of Mbeki's government.

"The statement shows a high degree of insensitivity and shows that the TAC is using Nozipho's death to further their own narrow  agenda," family spokesman Mtholephi Mthimkhulu told the SAPA news agency.

"It was her democratic right not to use anti-retrovirals."

Government pressure

While officials say about 120,000 people receive the drugs, the TAC and other activists say this is only about half the number that Aids kills in South Africa each year and is expanding too slowly to turn the tide against the disease.

TAC spokesman, Mark Heywood, said the group, nominated for a Nobel prize in 2004, regretted the family's anger but stood firm in its contention that Bhengu was a victim of government pressure to not to use anti-retrovirals.

"Instead of objective decision-making about medical facts, political pressure coming from within the heart of the ANC is creating confusion around medicine and creating direct pressure on many individuals not to take the drugs," Heywood said.

"Doctors are reporting all over the country that people are confused and scared, and that is a tragedy."