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Mandela’s AIDS Legacy of Silence and Courage

Even the greatest among us can stumble.

As the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, it is important to look at the one area where the iconic former president of South Africa slipped — AIDS. The most outstanding moral figure of our age did not do what was needed as HIV began to destroy the country he loved. But his actions after he realized his failures are an important part of his legacy.

South Africa is beset with the worst epidemic of HIV in the world. According to the United Nations, out of a South African population of just over 51 million, 6.1 million of its citizens were infected with HIV in 2012, including 410,000 children under the age of 14. An estimated 240,000 South Africans died in 2012 from AIDS. There are 2.5 million children orphaned because of the disease. The grim social, economic and medical toll AIDS has exacted on Mandela’s country is almost beyond description.

In 1990, when Mandela was released from a 27-year prison sentence, the rate of HIV infection among adult South Africans was less than 1 percent. When the anti-apartheid activist was elected president four years later, AIDS was on it way to being an out-of-control plague, with infection rates doubling every year. In 1998, the rate of HIV infection among adults in South Africa was almost 13 percent, with 2.9 million people HIV positive.

Mandela and his party were more or less indifferent to AIDS throughout his five-year tenure. There were other huge challenges in rebuilding the new post-apartheid nation — but the indifference was not just a matter of priorities. Mandela and his party did not want to admit they had a problem.

Why they did not take prompt action to slow the epidemic’s spread is not clear. Perhaps Mandela and his people — like United States President Ronald Reagan and his administration in the 1980s — found the disease and its modes of transmission too repellent to acknowledge. Maybe they did not want to tarnish the new state with a problem that at the time carried so much stigma and shame.

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