Mandela the AIDS activist

Mandela the AIDS activist
Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela

JOHANNESBURG- Nelson Mandela was one of the first public figures to break the taboo over AIDS in South Africa, a disease that hit close to home when it claimed the life of his own son.

Mandela, who died Thursday aged 95, faced criticism for saying little about the pandemic while he was president from 1994 to 1999, but became increasingly vocal in later years as the country was ravaged by the disease.

"Africans are very conservative on questions of sex. They don't want you to talk about it," the Nobel Peace Prize winner once said when asked about his initial silence.

"I told them we have got this epidemic which is going to wipe out our nation if we don't take precautions. I could see I was offending my audience. They were looking at each other horrified."

Once he retired from office, Mandela began paying more attention to the scourge of AIDS in a country where some 5.5 million people - more than 10 per cent of the population - are living with the HIV virus.

In a speech to mark World AIDS Day in December 2000, he said: "HIV/AIDS is worse than a war. As we speak now, there are thousands of people dying from it. But this war can be won. This is one war where you can make a difference."

Two years on, he implicitly criticised his successor, then-president Thabo Mbeki, who had questioned the link between HIV and AIDS.

"The debate about some fundamental issues around HIV continues to rage in manners that detract from what should be our concerns in combatting this major threat to our future," Mandela said in February 2002.

He later told reporters that HIV sufferers should be given anti-retroviral drugs. It was a radical statement at the time, given that the African National Congress (ANC) government was still refusing to make the medicine available at state hospitals, saying it needed to test its toxicity first.

That same year, Mandela met with leading AIDS activist Zackie Achmat to try and convince him to drop his "medicine strike". The HIV-positive campaigner, who was fast contracting full-blown AIDS, had refused to take drugs until the state made it available for free in the public health sector.

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