This week, the 17th International Conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted infections in Africa is being held in Cape Town and delegates at the opening ceremony spoke about the contribution of Nelson Mandela to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Though the disease claimed little of his attention while he was president, Mr Mandela became painfully aware of the toll it was taking on African life after he left office.
By 2002, the South African government was still refusing to introduce HIV treatment in the public sector, with the president at the time denying there was a link between HIV and AIDS. Nelson Mandela began working behind the scenes to change the government’s stance. He also made public visits to AIDS lobby groups and to the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which was offering antiretrovirals at a public health clinic in South Africa. On meeting AIDS campaigners, Mr Mandela famously wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘HIV Positive’.
'Truly dark times'
Speaking at the conference (her comments reported in a recent IRIN article), the singer and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador, Annie Lennox, described this period in South Africa’s fight against HIV/AIDS as “truly dark times”. However, Mr Mandela’s public support challenged the political status quo and helped to change policy. In 2003, the South African government agreed to introduce free HIV treatment at state facilities. As the head of the National AIDS Council noted using Biblical rhetoric “with Nelson Mandela behind us – doctors, nurses and people living with HIV – then who could be against us?”
However, there was still the huge problem of the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. Mr Mandela invited international singing stars such as Annie Lennox and Alicia Keys to perform at the launch of a campaign to raise awareness about the disease and help reduce the stigma. Lennox admitted that when she and other artists were invited to Robben Island, where Mr Mandela told them that the AIDS epidemic was mainly affecting women and children, she was “ashamed” at how little she knew about the illness.
But perhaps the most hard-hitting and poignant contribution Nelson Mandela made to the global fight against HIV/AIDS came in 2005, when he became one of the first leaders to acknowledge the personal impact on his family. Mr Mandela disclosed that his only surviving son had died from an AIDS-related illness. Such an admission was still taboo in many communities and helped to encourage people across the world to talk more openly about the impact of the disease.
With nearly 8 million people receiving ARVs in South Africa, new infections and death rates have been falling. Nevertheless, around 14 million more South Africans are waiting to begin treatment, many of them children and teenagers. Though thankful for Mr Mandela’s legacy, HIV/AIDS campaigners say that much more work remains in the battle against this cruel disease.