In a beautiful article on President Nelson Mandela’s life, Archbishop Desmond Tutu makes an honest tribute. He lauds Mandela for his integrity, and also pulls at the productive tensions they felt, as leaders of conscience (and co-Nobel Laureates) in South African anti-apartheid struggles. Both leaders — one now passed on — worked to foster recognition of their people’s dignity, and understanding of the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In his honest celebration of Mandela on AllAfrica, Tutu posits that Mandela did not pay as much attention to the AIDS crisis as he could have during his presidency in the mid 1990s. But he, and others, mention what Mandela has done in the years following his presidency — including trying to persuade fellow ANC (African National Congress) leaders and dignitaries on the continent to declare the AIDS epidemic the emergency it was and is. Mandela became one of the first African leaders to “truly break the silence on HIV,” says Michel Sidibe, head of UNAIDS. After his presidency, one of Mandela’s many roles, for which he is now remembered, was as “AIDS activist.”
Asked why the issue of HIV/AIDS was at first taboo, President Mandela mentioned something with which most of us around the world (and certainly in this author’s position in the Southeastern US) are quite familiar — a populace who are “very conservative on questions of sex. They don’t want you to talk about it.” As covered by the Global Post, Mandela continues, “I told them we have got this epidemic which is going to wipe out our nation if we don’t take precautions. I could see I was offending my audience. They were looking at each other horrified.”
Echoing the calls of World AIDS Day this past week, I want to cover 2 key areas in which Mandela shifted our global landscape of AIDS communication and action.
1) Drug Access
From the late 1990s onward, Mandela campaigned (a) to get world leaders to declare a “global war on AIDS”, and (b) for access to needed antiretroviral medicines among all HIV+ persons who need them in order to live. This campaign reached particular success with a coalition of organizers, who worked to reduce AIDS drug costs and put pressure on governments across the world (including in South Africa) to legislate provision of ARVs, especially to pregnant women, beginning in the early 2000s.
Antiretroviral drugs help treat persons who are HIV+ in order that they might live — by lowering the viral load in the body. Thus, at the same time, ARVs help reduce the transmission of HIV itself (reducing the concentration or proliferation of the virus in one person’s body, and thus from sexual partner to sexual partner, mother to child, or persons using needles). However as Mandela’s work and its unfinished nature reveal, most HIV+ people who need ARVs have to fight for them, amid scarce resources the world over —
In 2005, Mandela bravely spoke in public about his own son’s death, from AIDS-related complications. He hoped his public announcement would reduce stigma on an international scale, particularly in the valences of “moral” judgment so commonly cast through HIV-related discourse, tied to gender, race, homophobia, income and health access, and fear of discussing sex, drugs, and inequality. “To come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV… people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary, as an illness reserved to people who are going to go to hell and not heaven,” said Mandela, in 2005.
Mandela made a “decision in 2005 to go public with the news that his own son, Makgatho, had died of AIDS-related causes. His public revelation helped drive debate about HIV. And his support to people living with HIV helped to break down stigma and discrimination,” UNAIDS said in a press release honoring Mandela’s life this week.
In Mandela’s spirit, we might now ask ourselves:
In the wake of this year’s World AIDS Day, where can we push our communities, governments, family and friends, further toward a World Without AIDS? What has been overlooked in the fight against AIDS? Toward which ends can we seek collective health through concerted action — as global and local community, heeding Nelson Mandela’s call? In logics made possible by Mandela and Tutu, and now in the frame of HIV activism, is it possible to seek not only well-being in the face of crisis, but well-being with just access for all?