July 28, 2000
The following is the beginning of the closing address of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, at the XIII International AIDS Conference, Durban, July 14, 2000. He was repeatedly applauded by the delegates.
"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 toward 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," [applause], "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 inquiry, unencumbered by undue political interference in the 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 concerns of those suffering and dying. And this can only be done in partnership." [applause]
"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. [applause] History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now, and right now." [applause]
ISSN # 1052-4207
Copyright 2000 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.
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