“Our nation has lost its greatest son," were the words of South African President Jacob Zuma last night as he announced the death of Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and the first leader of democratic South Africa. President Zuma spoke for not just the nation of South Africa. Last night, Africa lost its greatest son. The world lost a truly global icon. The rich, the poor, the people in the margins of society, the forgotten, lost a father.
Mandela, the man, who was born of African aristocracy but later spent much of his life as an underdog, became a study in embracing otherness. In accepting people who oppressed him for decades, he understood that life’s best moments are not spent in revenge but in reconciliation. In forgiving, in embracing the most marginalized, Mandela taught us that the least among us needed to be treated with care and dignity. He, the human rights champion, taught us that there was no room for discrimination against others no matter how they looked or what their situation was.
He was a prisoner who turned President. He had the uncanny ability to replicate greatness in many of the things he touched. In the fight against HIV, he started a charity for HIV campaigns called 46664 after his Robben Island prison number. With his characteristic big smile, which 27 years of an isolated jail and hard labor could not dampen, he took the fight against HIV to high heights, helping reverse the slow start of response towards HIV in his country.
In his closing address at the 13th International Aids Conference in July 2000 in Durban South Africa, Mandela called on the world to “move from rhetoric to action… break the silence, banish stigma and discrimination, and ensure total inclusiveness within the struggle against AIDS.”
“Those who are infected with this terrible disease do not want stigma, they want love,” he added.
Mandela made the call of breaking the silence personal when in 2005 he announced that Makgatho Mandela, his sole surviving son, had died from complications from AIDS. "Let us give publicity to AIDS and not hide it, because [that is] the only way to make it appear like a normal illness."
His wish for a world that transcended stigma and shame that kept AIDS closeted is one that we still grapple with today.
As President Zuma broke the news of Mandela’s death, thousands of scientists, policy makers, activists, government leaders and civil society members were streaming into Cape Town, South Africa, for the 17th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), which will open tomorrow.
This year, the biennial conference, has a theme entitled Now More Than Ever: Targeting Zero, built around the UNAIDS vision of striving for zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. The meeting comes at a time when the world has made significant advances in beating back the effects of HIV.
New epidemiological intelligence paints the picture of a disease on the run, more and more concentrated in dark corners where people do not have access to health care. Such pockets are inhabited by marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, people using drugs and prisoners.
To defeat HIV, the world needs a Mandela-esque benevolence and resolve to focus attention and interventions in these people who have been pushed away from the centre of the society. In the 20th century’s most celebrated prisoner, the world can certainly find a real path to inclusiveness.
Mandela’s life is an incredible celebration of the tenacious strength of the human spirit, which enables people to overcome the biggest human odds. Anger, hate, discrimination, even disease. In him, we learn what one human being with resolve, dignity and compassion can achieve, and perhaps how much more a collective and compassionate human family can accomplish even in the fight against some of the most devastating diseases in history.