Zackie Achmat is South Africa's HIV Hero, not Nelson Mandela
Mandela has failed to show true leadership in the fight against HIV
When Nelson Mandela this week revealed his son Makgatho had died of HIV he was showered with praise for his leadership and bravery. The director of the UN Aids programme, Peter Piot, hailed Mandela's "unwavering and outspoken" opposition to HIV stigma and discrimination.
Mandela's candour about his son's illness will undoubtedly help erode Aidsphobia. Compared to most other world leaders, he has been forthright concerning the need to combat the pandemic.
For these reasons, we appreciate Mandela and admire him. There is, after all, very little international leadership in the fight against HIV. Mandela's commitment and openness is therefore commendable. It contrasts with the dishonesty and neglect of Aids by others.
But, in fact, Mandela has merely done what any responsible public figure should do: tell the truth and challenge HIV prejudice.
"Aids is the worst catastrophe ever to hit the world", according to the UN children's agency, Unicef. It is causing a death toll equivalent to THE Asian tsunami disaster every three weeks. Where is the AIDS relief effort to match the magnificent international response to the Indian Ocean devastation?
Worldwide, 42 million people are infected with HIV. Already, 15 million children have been orphaned. In sub-Saharan Africa, there are 25 million HIV-positives, including nearly two million under 14. Hardly any of these people have access to treatment.
Mandela is the closest thing we have to a living saint. He is a world icon, and deservedly so. But the anti-apartheid liberation hero has, by his own admission, a less than heroic record on Aids. When he was South African president, from 1994-99, he bowed to public sensitivities and taboos; failing to deal decisively with the HIV crisis. Mandela refused calls to lead a public education and prevention campaign. Early action would have saved lives and slowed the spread of the virus, which has now infected over five million South Africans.
Is it fair to criticise the great man? Yes. From an extraordinary leader, we expect extraordinary leadership. On HIV, President Mandela let down his own people. He ignored the pleas of HIV-positive activists, many of whom were members of his African National Congress (ANC). They survived the bullets and beatings of the apartheid regime, only to be, in effect, sentenced to death by the inaction of their own ANC government.
This neglect has continued under Mandela's successor, President Thabo Mbeki. He denies knowing anyone with Aids, even though his spokesman, Parks Makhalana, died of the disease. Mbeki has repeatedly disputed the scientific evidence that HIV causes Aids, and he has opposed the use of anti-retroviral drugs that are proven to cut the death rate. The result? An Aids holocaust. HIV is killing more South Africans than the vile system of apartheid; claiming over 600 lives a week, which is the equivalent of nine Sharpeville massacres every seven days.
Last month, the ANC attacked Aids activists for demanding that more anti-HIV drugs are made available to the poor, accusing them of being part of a western plot to distribute unsafe treatments. Mandela remained silent during the controversy.
Although he publicly embraced HIV-positive campaigners and chided Mbeki in 2002, the following year Mandela objected to his photo being used to promote a march in Cape Town urging a mass treatment programme.
Is Mandela a hero of the South African battle against HIV? No. The real hero is Zackie Achmat, leader of the Aids activist Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). An ANC activist in the apartheid era, Achmat is black, openly gay and HIV-positive. In 2000, he went to Thailand and illegally shipped back to South Africa cheap, generic versions of anti-retrovirals for distribution to people on low incomes; forcing Mbeki to end the import ban.
TAC then won a court case compelling the government to provide treatment to HIV-positive pregnant women, to reduce the risk of their children being born with the virus.
Two years ago, an ailing Achmat went on treatment strike. He refused life-saving drugs, insisting he would not take them until they were made available to everyone at low cost. Risking his life, he helped pressure the government to increase the provision of affordable anti-HIV drugs. Availability has improved, but it is still not enough.
It is not too late for Mandela to make a huge difference. By speaking out and shaming the ANC government into action, he could help ensure that South Africa's biggest post-apartheid struggle secures its goal: HIV treatment for everyone who needs it, to halt needless, preventable Aids deaths.
Published as: "Mandela let his people down in the fight against Aids",
Independent on Sunday, 9 January 2005.