Address by Nelson Mandela to the National Conference on AIDS, Johannesburg

23 October 1992

Comrades and Compatriots

When I was asked to open this conference some months ago, I felt greatly honoured by the invitation and at the same time, greatly humbled by the enormity of this problem facing our own country and many other countries. My mind was sharply focused on the words in Hemingway's novel that:

"man is not an island
he is not an entity unto himself
therefore ask not for whom the bells toll
they toll for thee".

The reality of the AIDS epidemic worldwide is that it is not merely a medical condition, it is a disease with socio-medical implication.

In South Africa, this problem challenges the entire socio-economic fabric of our society and poses a threat to future generations. Statistics indicate that those forced to live in poor socio-economic conditions are the highest at risk in our population.

As at the 30th June this year, 1316 cases of AIDS were recorded, and to majority of these were recorded in Natal, with the highest incidences of AIDS countrywide being recorded in the urban areas. Apartheid's legacy has played a great role in this factor, particularly in the black communities where overcrowding in homes does not provide for privacy within the family; where lack of housing and the creation of informal settlements as well as the lack of recreation facilities makes the black community even more susceptible to the sex related virus.

Single sex hostels lead to the disintegration of family units in rural areas and hostel dwellers are forced to have casual relationships since they cannot live with their families.

Another startling statistic is the incidence of AIDS in young children. Most children born with the AIDS virus, die before they reach their second birthday. The fact that the virus attacks the most economically active age group in our population, is also an issue worthy of discussion.

The serious consequences of inadequate health care facilities nationally. As well as the fact that there is limited access to the health facilities which treat sexually transmitted diseases, is a matter which this conference must pay serious attention to.

Women are the most seriously affected by the AIDS virus. They are the poorest people in our country due to the lack of education and work opportunities. The position of women in our society forces them into a situation where they are unable to protect themselves or an unborn infant against the virus. Many women find it very difficult to insist that their partners wear condoms due to the socialisation of both men and women on the issue of sex.

Our most potent weapon against this virus is education. We have, perhaps, for some time, allowed ourselves to believe that like other epidemics it will come and go; that the great advances of our time in science and technology will offer us appropriate quick intervention.

The key to our success is our own collective effort. The time for rhetorical arguments and victim blaming has passed. Now is the time for action. What we know about this disease already is enough to enable us to put in place comprehensive and appropriate intervention strategies.

We already know that AIDS has no cure and no vaccine despite the intensive research efforts. Therefore, prevention remains for us the strategy we must employ.

We do have a problem with the efforts being made by the South African government, in that the efforts by the government to introduce preventative measures are viewed with suspicion and as a ploy to control the population. This government does not have the credibility to convince the majority of black South Africans to change their sexual behaviour.

Our first thought must be the protection of our people against this disease, and therefore, it is necessary that we adopt a broad front approach to the problem.

All sectors of our community must become engaged in this battle and resources available from the government must be distributed to our communities. This problem does not allow anyone the luxury of political bias or hearts-and-minds winning exercises. We need to set up a structure at national, regional and local level which goes beyond health workers and the government.

AIDS exposes an aspect of our lives that we are most loath to discuss openly, but it also touches on religious and cultural sensitivities. We must be sensitive to these, yet be bold to explore all avenues that will ensure that our message is not only received but well received. The only sure way of achieving this is by involving all of us in our home, our institutions, organisations, places of worship and work.

I believe that a central component of our intervention strategy must be to strengthen the capacity of our people individually and collectively to recognise, understand and act decisively against this scourge.

Let us ensure that everybody understand that a successful fight against AIDS, is not a success only for individuals, but for families, communities and indeed for our country as a whole.

In this regard I wish to make a special appeal to the government, the business community and other formations to, as a matter of urgency, make resources available for a speedy implementation of the recommendations that will come from this convention. I have already said that education is our most potent medicine against this virus - we need to bring home to parents, church leaders, political organisations and all other organs of civil society that stigmatisation of AIDS victims does not solve the problem. The victims of AIDS are victims of the illnesses in our society and we need to proceed from that basis.

Many of us find it difficult to talk about sex to our children, but nature's truth is that unless we guide the youth towards safer sex, the alternative is playing into the hands of a killer disease. In this regard I wish to endorse the idea of an AIDS charter which will educate and activate our population, as well entrench the rights of AIDS victims. Compatriots we have an obligation to move decisively to remove all those obstacles which limit our capacity to deal effectively with this scourge. Do we really have any justification for perpetuating such practices as the migrant labour system, single sex hostels, which not only destroy family life, but certainly limit our capacity to establish stable self-reliant communities that can be the core of a dynamic society able to cope with this and other problems? Is it not time we address the problem of illiteracy, poverty and empower our women folk - all crucial factors for an effective intervention strategy?

Very few, if any diseases better illustrate the truth in the dictum "prevention is better than cure".

Lastly, AIDS definitely has profound direct micro and macro-economic impacts. In the years ahead, as we face the process of national reconstruction, we shall need the best possible performance of our national economy. Let us therefore act now to ensure that our efforts at nation building and democratic transformation will not be frustrated.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation