Nelson Mandela: Great Is Too Small a Word

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.

Mandela was also responsible for pushing South Africa into being the first country on the continent to ban anti-gay stigma and was a strong promoter of marriage equality. Eventually, in 2006, it became the first country in Africa and the fifth in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. That was an achievement that LGBT organisations across the world are still drop-jawed about in 2013! He also ensured that LGBT people got jobs at the highest levels of society and in politics and the courts of law. The "Rainbow Nation," a label invented by his ally and friend, Bishop Desmond Tutu, began to look a reality, although in 2013 like everywhere around the world, it's a tenuous victory. The vicious anti-gay laws in many parts of Africa are trying hard to reverse the example set by South Africa.

During the last few years when he was still fit enough, Nelson Mandela travelled the world and was welcomed both in the highest circles and by the common man, as a respected world leader. What he said carried enormous publicity and credibility and his tireless fight against HIV has created numerous successes across the globe.

At the first concert of his 46664 charity in Cape Town, he said, "AIDS is no longer just a disease, it is a human rights issue."

And at the opening of the Second International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis and Treatment on July 14, 2003, he stated:

By all accounts, we are dealing with the greatest health crisis in human history. By all measures, we have failed in our quest to contain and treat this scourge ... The more we lack the courage and the will to act, the more we condemn to death our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren. When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of a global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?

In Tromso, Norway, he went on:

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 ... We must act now for the sake of the world.

At other conferences and top-level meetings, he pushed the point home:

The ordinary people of the world, particularly the poor -- who on our continent will again carry a disproportionate burden of this scourge -- would 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. History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so right now.


Wasting words and energy in worthless ridicule distracts us from our main course of action, which must be not only to develop an AIDS vaccine, but also to love, care for, and comfort those who are dying of HIV/AIDS. A vaccine shall only prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS to those not already infected; we must also direct our concern towards those who are already HIV positive.

I'm not throwing in quotes to fill up an article, but to illustrate just what sort of impact a man like Mandela could have. He was always aware that many people hung on his every word, so those words had to be chosen carefully and although HIV/AIDS is by no means conquered or even under control, without Mandela's wisdom, many people in many lands would possibly be far worse off than they are now. Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAIDS, said of Mandela:

He was the one who really helped us break the conspiracy of silence. ... His legacy is that of non-discrimination, inclusiveness, and making sure that we will continue to fight for the rights of people without rights. ... That is what he brought to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

It's clear that Mandela's fight is nowhere near over and it's almost certain that he has died with a sense of a job unfinished and frustration at continued entrenched ideas in his own country. South Africa's current president Jacob Zuma has been severely criticised for telling a court hearing that he could not have HIV after having sex with a positive partner, because he washed after sex. There is still an enormous amount of work to do in tackling both poverty and winning hearts and minds; but you shudder at the thought of what might have happened if Mandela hadn't lived and been the man he was.

He wasn't a saint and said so himself. I'm sure after the coming weeks you'll be left with the impression that this man could walk on water, but it was his quiet dignity and humanity that impressed me the most. He was a political martyr, courageous, heroic, a moral leader and South African national liberator. He was presidential, reconciliatory and highly respected, but people who can move mountains with a whisper are often the greatest leaders. Like Ghandi and King before him, it was his presence in a room that could sway opinions and make world leaders agree to his every request. Similarly, he had the personality that made ordinary people leading ordinary lives think of him as a role model they would like their children to grow up to be. As Rudyard Kipling said in "If":

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch ...

Nelson Mandela could do that and because of that, millions across the world will stop still at his funeral and pay respects to a man the likes of which comes along very rarely.

Hamba kahle Madiba.

The following YouTube video will surely give you a sense of the man and what he meant to his country.

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Read Dave's blog HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck.