Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights

Nelson Mandela and the battle against HIV and AIDS in South Africa: Pertinent Lessons

Posted On
Monday, July 23, 2018

Author

Nyasha Maposa

Image Courtesy: Biography.com

“Even the greatest amongst us do sometimes stumble.”

As we recently celebrated the birthday of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the apartheid activist and the first black president of South Africa, it is important that we take stock of his legacy in its entirety. Meaning, that in as much as we are inspired by this great man, we must also take the time to learn from the mistakes he made during the course of his leadership. This is imperative, because it is only by learning from those who preceded us that we can avoid the same mistakes and create a better tomorrow.

 

Mandela’s inability to effectively address the issue of HIV and AIDS was one of his greatest failures during his five-year presidency between 1994 and 1999. After a 27-year sentence in prison, when Mandela was released in 1990, HIV infection amongst adult South Africans was at a rate of less than one percent. Four years later, when he was elected as president, HIV was on its way to becoming a widespread epidemic within the country, with infection rates doubling every year. In 1998, it was estimated that HIV infection amongst adult South Africans was at 13 percent, with 2.9 million people having HIV and AIDS within the country. Though in 1992, prior to his presidency, Mandela had given a speech recognising that AIDS was a growing problem worldwide, it was not followed by adequate action.

 

By the time Mandela left the office of president, the infection rate had grown to 20 percent, with 500 deaths from HIV and AIDS everyday. Yet there wasn’t a concrete response to the problem. Why did Mandela not take prompt action during his presidency to address an issue that was clearly becoming critical in the country? The reasons are not very clear. Some have noted that though he had the “moral authority” to speak out on HIV and AIDS, he had other pressing priorities. Other issues such as political stability, economic policy, racial reconciliation and international relations had taken precedence. Mandela himself told the BBC during the 1994 election that “I wanted to win, and I didn’t want to talk about AIDS.” He said that once he became president, he “had no time to concentrate on the issue.”

 

It was only later that Mandela became a staunch activist for HIV and AIDS. In the early 2000’s, he began to speak out more openly on the issue in South Africa. This was followed by action — a fundraising campaign known as 46664 (his identification number on Robben Island) to support public health efforts towards HIV and AIDS prevention. This was crucial especially when his handpicked successor Thabo Mbeki believed that HIV did not cause AIDS and that home brews could cure AIDS. When Mandela’s only  son Makgatho died of HIV and AIDS at 54 years in 2005, his candour about the illness increased further. On the morning of the death of his son, he implored people to “give publicity to HIV and 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 say somebody has died from HIV. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.”

 

There is often the misconception that we are to learn only from the successes and accomplishments of great people, when the most valuable lessons usually lie in how they recognised and dealt with the mistakes they made. Some may think this applies only to the context of South Africa, but the issue of HIV and AIDS is a problem that is being faced in a great many countries, India included. Therefore, let us learn from Mandela and never again be silent, nor ignore the deaths that continue to occur at the hands of HIV and AIDS. As we celebrate Mandela, let us remember that it is our obligation to continue this fight not only on the public health front but also on the political front. Let us take heed, for the future lies in our hands.

 

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