Nelson Mandela, AIDS Activist

Nelson Mandela, AIDS Activist
(1918–2013)
by Sally Hessney

Mandela visits a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) project as activist Zackie Achmat looks on. Photo by Eric Miller
Mandela visits a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) project as activist Zackie Achmat looks on. Photo by Eric Miller

South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela died at the age of ninety-five on December 5, 2013. He was remembered for his storied life as a resistance fighter, political prisoner, president, humanitarian, and human rights activist. He was acclaimed as a legendary leader of unmatched stature in the modern world. But no matter what one says about Mandela it sounds like faint praise. He is remembered here as an iconic AIDS activist who dedicated the last years of his life to fighting what he called “a silent and invisible enemy that is threatening the very fabric of our society.”

In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison as a clear-sighted realist with the ability to transcend the convulsive violence that threatened to swallow up South Africa. He was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with then President Frederik Willem de Klerk for negotiating an end to apartheid and averting a civil war. In his Nobel speech, de Klerk described the sea change in South Africa as the dawning of a new era “beneath the great southern stars” and looked forward to “a future in which there will be opportunity and space for joy and beauty—for real and lasting peace.” But even as Nelson Mandela became the first black president in a multiracial representational democracy, AIDS was reaching pandemic proportions in South Africa. During his presidency, he remained silent on the subject of HIV and AIDS. “Africans are very conservative on questions of sex. They don’t want you to talk about it,” he explained when asked about his reticence, “I told them we have got this epidemic which is going to wipe out our nation….I could see I was offending my audience. They were looking at each other horrified.” When Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999, he used his position as elder statesman to raise awareness about AIDS and to ameliorate the stigma and shame associated with HIV and AIDS in South African society.

Nelson Mandela’s successor, former President Thabo Mbeki, adopted a ruinous government policy that prevented South Africans from receiving lifesaving AIDS drugs. He promulgated the pernicious view of pseudoscientists who claimed that HIV did not cause AIDS. He believed AIDS statistics were exaggerated to reinforce the stereotypes about blacks that had served to underpin colonial rule, slavery, and apartheid. While AIDS deaths declined in developed countries due to antiretroviral drugs, Mbeki decried them as a form of “biological warfare.” He railed against the despotism of drug companies, accusing them of turning South Africans into “guinea pigs” for “dangerous and toxic drugs.” He failed to implement a national program that included antiretroviral medicines, even as South Africa’s leading AIDS activist Zackie Achmat successfully lobbied pharmaceutical companies to make AIDS drugs more affordable. While South Africa became the worst-affected country in the world, its health minister, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, advised AIDS patients to treat themselves with home remedies such as garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot. According to a 2008 Harvard study, South Africa’s government could have prevented 365,000 deaths if it had distributed antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients in the early part of the new century.

Against this racially and politically charged backdrop, Nelson Mandela emerged as an ardent fighter in the battle against HIV and AIDS. He distanced himself from the calamitous debate being waged by African National Congress insiders over the etiology of AIDS and its treatment. In 2000, at the XIIIth International AIDS Conference, he scolded dissidents for focusing on a dispute that distracted from “life and death issues.” He said, “…we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now, and right now.” He used his standing as South Africa’s beloved “Tata” to change the AIDS agenda. Mandela made strong pronouncements in favor of prevention, testing, and antiretroviral treatment. He said he believed HIV caused AIDS. He called for pregnant women to be given AIDS drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission. He met with activist Zackie Achmat to try and convince him to drop his antiretroviral drug strike. Achmat was HIV-positive but refused to take drugs until the state made them available for free to South Africans. In 2003, Mandela launched a charity called 46664 after his Robben Island prison number to raise awareness and money through a series of huge international concerts. Famous artists performed at these concerts, including Beyoncé, Bongo Maffin, the Corrs, Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, Queen, Amy Winehouse, and Youssou N’Dour. In 2005, Mandela told reporters that his son, Makgatho, had died of AIDS-related causes. With this announcement he hoped to put an end to the social stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, saying, “Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness, like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV.”

“Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” an eighty-six-year-old Nelson Mandela joked as he stepped down from public life in 2004. He gave up all public speaking engagements except those at which he was invited to speak on HIV and AIDS. When it came to AIDS, he never failed to answer the call. South Africa currently has more people infected with HIV than any other country on the planet. However, it has reached a “tipping point” and is winning the battle against the disease, according to an amfAR/AVAC report which charts the number of people in each country who are newly infected with HIV each year to the number of infected being put on treatment for the first time. This is due in no small measure to the late Nelson Mandela whose passion, dedication, and leadership will be missed in the world of AIDS activism.

Sally Hessney is a program assistant at a nonprofit organization, where one of the educational missions is to educate teenagers about the dangers of binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, distracted driving, STDs, and other consequential issues.