Memories of Mandela: A seeker of justice and AIDS activist

December 20, 2013
Written by Breda Gahan, Global HIV and AIDS Adviser, Concern Worldwide, Dublin, Ireland
Photo by Paul Saad, Creative Commons

A life-long Concern adviser remembers the impact of Nelson Mandela and his AIDS activism–from apartheid to his last days.

I remember the night of February 2, 1990, well.

I was working my first post with Concern Worldwide in Sudan, where I had arrived from Ireland in 1988 to help train traditional midwives and community health workers in a small village called Dinder. Most of our health education work was done at night, as it was difficult for the village women to go out during daylight hours. After a late evening Dinder’s town hospital or at the Midwifery School in nearby Sennar, I would head home, where the radio was one of my few windows to the world outside my little village. One night in February, I heard a BBC broadcast announce that South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela had been freed after 27 years in prison.

Mandela’s release came on the heels of momentous change in the world. Just a year before in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc of Europe.

In 1990, very few people in Dinder had heard of Nelson Mandela. There were no televisions in the area at the time and information about what was happening in the wider world around us was extremely limited. I did not even know what Mandela looked like until the end of that year when I finally saw his picture during a visit home. But I had known of and supported the anti-apartheid movement. I knew about the brave actions of the 12 Dunnes Stores union workers in Ireland who went on strike in the mid-1980s and refused to handle any South African goods in protest against apartheid. I also knew about the growing chorus of voices from around the world that advocated for the end of the country’s oppressive regime, including many famous musicians like Bruce Springstein, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, U2, and Tracy Chapman.

One night in February, I heard a BBC broadcast announce that South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela had been freed after 27 years in prison.

Mandela’s release came on the heels of momentous change in the world. Just a year before in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc of Europe. In China, students and civilians gathered in Tiananmen Square to call on their government for democratic reforms, only to be massacred with bullets and tanks. And in South Africa, after a decade of violence mired in a long history of racial inequality and oppression, F.W. de Klerk became president in what would be the country’s last election decided only by a white minority. He would later help usher in the end of the apartheid era and free Nelson Mandela from prison. The two men went on to share a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and a year after that, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela’s passing on December 5, 2013, marks an enormous loss for the world. Mandela loved and was loved by South Africa. But admiration for him extends the world over. He engaged with people from all walks of life across the globe during the 23 years that followed his release from prison. His accomplishments and presence are so widely felt that it seems he must have been on the global stage for much longer. He loved music. He loved life. He loved children. He loved colorful shirts. He laughed a lot. He liked to have fun. He loved his birthday parties.

Just a year before in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc of Europe.

Mandela became the iconic force behind South Africa’s resiliency and perseverance against adversity and injustice. However, the country would soon face other challenges. Thirty years ago, HIV and AIDS was first identified by scientists. The disease would become a worldwide epidemic, and South Africa was one of the worst affected countries. By 2000, the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant South African women alone was reported at 24.5%. An estimated 4.7 million South Africans were living with the virus by then and HIV was impacting the lives of nearly every South African family. (UNAIDS)

“The fight against AIDS is one of the greatest challenges the world faces at the start of the 21st century. I cannot rest until I’m certain that the global response is sufficient to turn the tide of the epidemic.”

Mandela first spoke about AIDS in 1997. Many South African HIV activists felt he should have acted sooner, given the impact that HIV and AIDS were already having in South Africa and on the African continent, but the early years of his presidency were consumed with supporting national reconciliation and sustaining peace in the country. In 2000, however, South Africa joined the international effort to address the epidemic by hosting the International AIDS Conference in the town of Durban, where Mandela delivered the concluding remarks. “Let us not equivocate: a tragedy of unprecedented proportions is unfolding in Africa,” he said. “AIDS today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sum total of all wars, famines, and floods and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria. It is devastating families and communities, overwhelming and depleting health care services, and robbing schools of both students and teachers.”

In 2005, Mandela experienced the devastation of HIV firsthand when his son Makgatho, a lawyer and father of four, tragically died of AIDS at the age of 54. Mandela, despite his age and increasingly frailty, continued to be an advocate for breaking the silence on HIV and mobilizing a global response. On his 90th birthday in 2008, he participated in the 46664 Concert, named after his prison number, in London’s Hyde Park to raise funds for his HIV and AIDS campaign.

As the world mourns Mandela’s passing, let us all remember these important words from his closing speech at the 2004 International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, where I had the honor of meeting him: “The fight against AIDS is one of the greatest challenges the world faces at the start of the 21st century. I cannot rest until I’m certain that the global response is sufficient to turn the tide of the epidemic. The importance of tackling this issue should not be undermined by the many other problems that confront a global society today. In the course of human history there has never been a greater threat than the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Our attention to this issue cannot be distracted or diverted by problems that are apparently more pressing. History will surely judge us harshly if we do not respond with all the energy and resources that we can bring to bear in the fight against HIV and AIDS.”

Let us not equivocate: a tragedy of unprecedented proportions is unfolding in Africa.

Mandela’s job is sadly not yet done. A total of 6.1 million South Africans are currently living with HIV; in 2012, 240,000 died from AIDS-related complications. Around the world in 2012, 6,300 people were newly infected with HIV each day.

Every hour, 50 young women were newly infected. Globally, 2.3 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2012, bringing the total number of people in the world living with the virus to 33.5 million people. Only about half of them know their status. (UNAIDS)

It is all of our responsibility, collectively, to keep carrying the torch to bring attention to and find ways to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Nelson Mandela deserves no less.