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"We Need to Break the Silence, Banish the Discrimination"

Nelson Mandela's Closing Address at the Durban Conference

October 2000

Below is the official released version of the closing address by former South African President Nelson Mandela at the XII International AIDS Conference, July 14, 2000 in Durban, South Africa. At the opening session of the conference, current South African president and Mandela ally Thabo Mbeki was the speaker. In the weeks leading up to the conference, Mbeki had provoked an enormous controversy by closely consulting with scientists who argue that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. These actions led a group of mainstream scientists to issue the so-called "Durban Declaration" (also reprinted in this issue). In his opening address, Mbeki identified poverty rather than HIV/AIDS per se as the greatest health problem facing Africa. It was against this backdrop that the following speech was given by Mandela, who is still widely regarded as a hero throughout the world for his courageous leadership in the battle against apartheid in South Africa.

To have been asked to deliver the closing address at this conference which in a very literal sense concerns itself with matters of life and death, weighs heavily upon me for the gravity of the responsibility placed on one.

No disrespect is intended towards the many other occasions where one has been privileged to speak, if I say that this is the one event where every word uttered, every gesture made, had to be measured against the effect it can and will have on the lives of millions of concrete, real human beings all over this continent and planet. This is not an academic conference. This is, as I understand it, a gathering of human beings concerned about turning around one of the greatest threats humankind has faced, and certainly the greatest after the end of the great wars of the previous century.

It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact upon the way people live or die.

If by way of introduction I stress the importance of the way we speak, it is also because so much unnecessary attention around this conference had been directed towards a dispute that is unintentionally distracting from the real life and death issues we are confronted with as a country, a region, a continent and a world.

I do not know nearly enough about science and its methodologies or about the politics of science and scientific practice to even wish to start contributing to the debate that has been raging on the perimeters of this conference.

I am, however, old enough and have gone through sufficient conflicts and disputes in my lifetime to know that in all disputes a point is arrived at where no party, no matter how right or wrong it might have been at the start of that dispute, will any longer be totally in the right or totally in the wrong. Such a point, I believe, has been reached in this debate.

The President of this country is a man of great intellect who takes scientific thinking very seriously and he leads a government that I know to be committed to those principles of science and reason.

The scientific community of this country, I also know, holds dearly to the principle of freedom of scientific enquiry, unencumbered by undue political interference in and direction of science.

Now, however, the ordinary people of the continent and the world -- and particularly the poor who on our continent will again carry a disproportionate burden of this scourge -- would, if anybody cared to ask their opinions, wish that the dispute about the primacy of politics or science be put on the backburner and that we proceed to address the needs and concerns of those suffering and dying. And this can only be done in partnership.

I come from a long tradition of collective leadership, consultative decision-making and joint action towards the common good. We have overcome much that many thought insurmountable through an adherence to those practices. In the face of the grave threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now, and right now.

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

Business has suffered, or will suffer, losses of personnel, productivity and profits; economic growth is being undermined and scarce development resources have to be diverted to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.

HIV/AIDS is having a devastating impact on families, communities, societies and economies. Decades have been chopped from life expectancy and young child mortality is expected to more than double in the most severely affected countries of Africa. AIDS is clearly a disaster, effectively wiping out the development gains of the past decade and sabotaging the future.

Earlier this week we were shocked to learn that within South Africa one in two, that is half, of our young people will die of AIDS. The most frightening thing is that all of these infections which statistics tell us about, and the attendant human suffering, could have been, can be, prevented.

Something must be done as a matter of the greatest urgency. And with nearly two decades of dealing with the epidemic, we now do have some experience of what works.

The experience in a number of countries has taught that HIV infection can be prevented through investing in information and life-skills development for young people. Promoting abstinence, safe sex and the use of condoms and ensuring the early treatment of sexually transmitted diseases are some of the steps needed and about which there can be no dispute. Ensuring that people, especially the young, have access to voluntary and confidential HIV counseling and testing services and introducing measures to reduce mother-to-child transmission have been proven to be essential in the fight against AIDS. We have recognized the importance of addressing the stigmatization and discrimination, and of providing safe and supportive environments for people affected by HIV/AIDS.

The experiences of Uganda, Senegal and Thailand have shown that serious investments in and mobilization around these actions make a real difference. Stigma and discrimination can be stopped; new infections can be prevented; and the capacity of families and communities to care for people living with HIV and AIDS can be enhanced.

It is not, I must add, as if the South African government has not moved significantly on many of these areas. It was the first deputy president in my government that oversaw and drove the initiatives in this regard, and as president continues to place this issue on top of the national and continental agenda. He will with me be the first to concede that much more remains to be done. I do not doubt for one moment that he will proceed to tackle this task with the resolve and dedication he is known for.

The challenge is to move from rhetoric to action, and action at an unprecedented intensity and scale. There is a need for us to focus on what we know works.

  • We need to break the silence, banish stigma and discrimination, and ensure total inclusiveness within the struggle against AIDS;

  • We need bold initiatives to prevent new infections among young people, and large-scale actions to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and at the same time we need to continue the international effort of searching for appropriate vaccines;

  • We need to aggressively treat opportunistic infections; and

  • We need to work with families and communities to care for children and young people to protect them from violence and abuse, and to ensure that they grow up in a safe and supportive environment.

For this there is need for us to be focused, to be strategic, and to mobilize all of our resources and alliances, and to sustain the effort until this war is won.

We need, and there is increasing evidence of, African resolve to fight this war. Others will not save us if we do not primarily commit ourselves. Let us, however, not underestimate the resources required to conduct this battle. Partnership with the international community is vital. A constant theme in all our messages has been that in this interdependent and globalized world, we have indeed again become the keepers of our brother and sister. That cannot be more graphically the case than in the common fight against HIV/AIDS.

As one small contribution to the great combined effort that is required, I have instructed my Foundation to explore in consultation with others the best way in which we can be involved in the battle against this terrible scourge ravaging our continent and world.

I thank all of you most sincerely for your involvement in that struggle. Let us combine our efforts to ensure a future for our children. The challenge is no less.

I thank you.

Back to the October 2000 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.