Nelson Mandela and AIDS: A Profile in Courage

Today, in honor of the passing off a great man, the United Nations issued a statement reminding the world that “Nelson Mandela was a central figure in the AIDS movement. He was instrumental in laying the foundations of the modern AIDS response. His actions helped save millions of lives and transformed health in Africa. He broke the conspiracy of silence and gave hope that all people should live with dignity.”

The conspiracy of silence referred to by the UN was a major stumbling block in fighting AIDS and it was locked in place at the very top by people like Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela’s successor as president in 1999. Mbeki openly questioned whether AIDS was caused by HIV, telling a US journalist that “personally, I don’t know anybody who has died of Aids” and that he did not know if he had ever met anyone infected with HIV. As a result, the South African government was reluctant to fund anti-retroviral drugs for those with HIV; and in public most South Africans were too afraid to mention the disease.

So it wasn’t  just HIV/AIDS itself that had be dealt with, it was also the veil of secrecy and fear that surrounded it – a challenge that Mr. Mandela chose to face.

Shortly after leaving office, on World Aids Day in 2000, he sent out a hard-hitting message: “Our country is facing a disaster of immeasurable proportions from HIV/Aids. We are facing a silent and invisible enemy that is threatening the very fabric of our society.”

Before the opening of Parliament in 2002 he spoke up again, this time about the importance of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This was at the very time that the Mbeki government was being dragged to court because it was refusing to treat pregnant mothers with HIV.

Mr. Mandela was personally stuck by the tragedy of AIDS in 2005 when his own son Matata Mandela died from it. “I announce that my son has died of AIDS,” the frail looking 86-year-old Nobel Peace laureate told a news conference, urging a redoubled fight against the disease. “Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like tuberculosis, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS.

The following year Mr Mandela – and his Nelson Mandela Foundation – stepped up the campaign, launching an HIV/Aids fundraising campaign called 46664, after his prison number on Robben Island. He compared the urgency and drama of his country’s struggle against HIV/Aids to the fight against apartheid.

In one of his notable public statements about AIDS, Mr Mandela called on the world to be brave, “The more we lack the courage and the will to act, the more we condemn to death our brothers and sisters, our children and our grand-children.

According to the UN, South Africa is still  home to more people with the virus than any other country – 6.1 million of its citizens were infected with HIV in 2012, including 410,000 children (aged 0-14), out of a population of just over 51 million.

Of Mr. Mandela we know this: he had the courage to act.

What remains to be seen is whether we do too.

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