The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource Follow Us Follow Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter 
Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol
HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson

Nelson Mandela: Great Is Too Small a Word

December 6, 2013

 1  |  2  |  Next > 

Dave R.

Dave R.

While most modern leaders base their careers on the Machiavellian quote that "It is better to be feared than loved," a handful of people throughout history prove by their lives and work that that doesn't necessarily have to be true. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa are names that spring to mind but history may judge Nelson Mandela to be possibly the greatest of them all. His ability to unite a land on the edge of chaos and riddled with partisan hatred and division, after 27 years of imprisonment and personal humiliation, is nothing short of miraculous.

There will be millions of words written in tribute to this great man and you will be able to read about every aspect of his life in great detail but this article concentrates on what he meant to us as LGBT people, his own "Rainbow Nation" and the millions who carried and are still carrying the HIV virus.

Just after the 1980s, when it looked like apartheid was there forever as one of the most entrenched, socially repressive movements in history, a man was released from 27 years' incarceration and became leader of a new South Africa. His message of reconciliation, and rejection of revenge as the normal means of overthrowing despotism, was so unusual, it electrified and unified most South Africans under a banner of hope and even love and at a stroke lifted the fear that the country would descend into bloodshed and tragedy. Search your history books; you won't find such a revolutionary and successful concept in many generations of human history.

He said he would die on Robben Island rather than give up the struggle but it was his dignity and quiet diplomatic brilliance that persuaded the then white supremacy that this was really the only way forward. The message was: Release Mandela, unban the ANC and hold elections and against every cynical politicians' expectations. It worked, and the rainbow nation with all its problems exists today in a stunning atmosphere of unity almost entirely brought about by the personality of Nelson Mandela. Whether it lasts can't be forecast but hopefully, the people of the richest land in Africa will see Mandela's legacy as being the best of all possible options and it will continue to grow in peace.


Poverty and HIV/AIDS remain two of the biggest problems South Africa faces after Mandela's death. When a large part of the black population is having to live with both and as the nation's prosperity and economy makes painfully slow steps towards their eradication, Nelson Mandela played a huge role in at least making both social issues topics of discussion at the top of the agenda.

During his first term in power however, he remained relatively quiet on the topic of HIV. He was also a Xhosa elder and didn't feel comfortable talking about sexually transmitted infection. He has since been criticized for that; but you have to remember the priorities he faced when taking over the government of a brand new system, attempting to do the impossible. Poverty and equality needed to be addressed immediately, at least in words, if not in deeds. The huge gulf between black and white couldn't possibly be bridged overnight, and redistributing wealth so that the poorest would climb out of a very deep poverty trap had to be handled with the greatest delicacy. Resentment on both sides lay just beneath the surface and peace was still a fragile concept.

It may be also that he didn't fully appreciate the enormity of the AIDS crisis but he had to tread very carefully in the beginning. After all, AIDS is a sexual matter and both blacks and whites in South Africa had their own cultural approaches in that regard. I believe he realized in those first five years that he could only tackle one huge problem at a time and that would be slow going but eventually improved living conditions would be the factor to help solve the problem of HIV/AIDS.

However, things came to a head when in January 2005, he shocked the world by announcing: "My son has died from AIDS" -- meaning his only surviving son, 54-year-old Makgatho. Later, Makgatho's wife also died of AIDS-related illness. When things like this happen within your own family, the reality of HIV is put firmly in focus.

He knew that as a statesman of international repute, the announcement of his own son's death to AIDS would land like a bombshell in many quarters. Actually it had the effect of opening up the whole issue and taking it out of the shadows. AIDS and HIV was now a major policy issue and there was no escaping the problems it posed for the new and fledgling South Africa. Later, he expressed some regret at not having acted sooner when he was president but I think we can all understand how it takes a personal experience like this to clarify things in your mind. Better late than never, and his work after that announcement once again showed his uniqueness in the world of politics.

He was fully aware of the impact of everything he said ...

It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison and 27 years of silence in solitude have taught me anything, it is how precious words are!

... and knew how much of an impact he could have in the struggle against HIV. You have to remember, at that time, 800 people a day were dying of AIDS in South Africa and yet it was still seen as something to be hidden in shame and stigma and nobody was talking about it. Mandela was possibly the only one who could have broken that silence and it was through personal tragedy that he was able to do that.

"Let us give publicity to HIV/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 to say somebody has died because of HIV ..." Mr. Mandela said at the announcement; "... and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary."

His positing of AIDS as one of the country's major problems was an act of personal generosity and one not without political risk, but his status and standing throughout Africa made him immune to criticism. However, when he was criticized, it was seen as churlish and petty-minded and Mandela was applauded for standing up against cultural prejudice. His reputation grew even more.

He quickly realized that his vision for a bright, new peaceful South Africa was threatened by HIV and the social problems that helped it spread, and he launched a campaign determined to address the problem head on, including supporting over 50 charities and rallying the world behind the cause. It was undoubtedly his influence that caused many Western leaders to re-assess their own policies regarding HIV/AIDS -- how could they not when the great Nelson Mandela was shaming them on the world stage! Ironically enough, it was the time afforded to him by his retirement from front line politics that gave him both the impartiality and room to change the world's opinion as to how AIDS should be tackled.

During an address to Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), he said:

AIDS is not a curse that we must deny, it is an illness that can be defeated. Resisting the continued stigmatisation of HIV-positive people is not only a compassionate act, it is practical and pragmatic.

Unfortunately, the new leader Thabo Mbeki and many other ANC luminaries tended to be somewhat AIDS denialists, and Mandela had to be careful not to be over-critical but nevertheless made it clear that inaction wasn't an option; the virus was rapidly spiralling out of control, and outdated and inaccurate views at the party top needed to be corrected. Theories that traditional tribal cures would deal with HIV were damaging South Africa's reputation but fortunately, Mandela's international stature carried more weight and common sense gained more ground. He got together the most prominent AIDS specialists and scientists and together they discussed a plan for South Africa and by doing that he gave his movement credibility which the government could hardly ignore. His charity for AIDS awareness was called 46664, after his prison number, and he was well aware of the symbolic weight that name would carry. From now on, he mentioned AIDS at every possible opportunity.

Finally, the government was pressured into providing anti-retroviral treatment but even then, the rate of transmission continued to grow. It was something that frustrated him and continues to frustrate AIDS activists in South Africa. Progress is painfully slow.

 1  |  2  |  Next > 

More From This Resource Center

Magic Johnson Wants You to Know: He Isn't Cured of HIV

Living With HIV? African Americans Share Their Advice

Related Stories

Three Ways Nelson Mandela Fought AIDS
13 Moments in Black Celebrity HIV/AIDS Activism
Battle Front Angels: HIV/AIDS Heroines of the '80s and '90s
Global Community Reacts to Death of Nelson Mandela, Reflects on His Contributions to Global AIDS Response
Three Ways Nelson Mandela Fought AIDS
Blog Posts, Press Release Address Death of Nelson Mandela
Opinion Pieces Address AIDS Work of Nelson Mandela
Media Coverage of Mandela's Death, AIDS Work Continues
Opinion: Mandela Would Approve of Global AIDS Progress
Opinion: Leadership Like Mandela's Can Help Transform HIV/AIDS Epidemic Globally

This article was provided by TheBody.


Add Your Comment:
(Please note: Your name and comment will be public, and may even show up in
Internet search results. Be careful when providing personal information! Before
adding your comment, please read's Comment Policy.)

Your Name:

Your Location:

(ex: San Francisco, CA)

Your Comment:

Characters remaining:


The content on this page is free of advertiser influence and was produced by our editorial team. See our advertising policy.