Address by President Nelson Mandela at a lunch for sponsors of his birthday party for children with life-threatening diseases

4 July 1997

Today I feel very humbled. I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with some of South Africa's bravest and finest people. They have shown me that even in the face of extreme adversity, we can still have hopes and dreams. They display true courage and wisdom. And some of them have not yet even celebrated their fifth birthday.

Today we pay homage to all of our children who are faced with a chronic illness or life-threatening disease. They have our admiration; our respect; and our love.

On this day I would like to commend the work of all those who help children who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, leukaemia, cystic fibrosis, Aids, and others.

Through their hard work and dedication they help hundreds of very ill children to realise a dream, and they give hundreds more something to look forward to, some reason to welcome tomorrow rather than fear it.

One of the gravest life-threatening illnesses affecting many of our young ones is HIV/AIDS. The crisis of Aids and its impact on children is growing at an alarming rate. This is made worse by the incidence of sexual exploitation and abuse of children.

What makes this particular life threatening illness so cruel is its social consequences.

All too often, babies who have been infected or who live in infected families are abandoned and rejected. AIDS turns them into orphans.

This is because their parents have died of the disease or are too sick to provide care; or because the stigma surrounding AIDS leads communities to treat infected babies as outcasts.

World Health Organisation and UNICEF reports indicate that by the year 2000 well over a million South African children will be infected by HIV or directly affected by its devastating consequences. Many will die before they are four years old. During their short lives they need special care, nursing and support. They need love. But who will give them this if communities continue to turn their backs?

All of us have a practical responsibility to ensure that our sick children are cared for, in the family and in the community. We have a responsibility to demonstrate our recognition of the value of each person's life, no matter how short, no matter how fragile.

This problem, therefore, requires a many-sided approach, encompassing health awareness and education as well as adequate health and welfare services.

The government recognises its responsibilities, and that it has a crucial role to play. It has to develop a comprehensive, integrated and innovative programme of action to care for AIDS orphans. But government cannot succeed on its own.

In partnership, government, NGOs, welfare organisations, the private sector, communities and individuals must rise to the challenge of life threatening diseases and their effects on children. We must build on the start that has been made towards creating awareness and developing sustainable forms of community care.

I would like to acknowledge and thank all who have made today possible by their donations. Your generosity has played a large part in making some very ill children extremely happy today. To the organisers of this event and all those who assisted in identifying the children and getting them here, we say: Thank you for your time; your efforts; and your dedication.

This spirit of caring and generosity is a shining example to all communities. Let us reach out to the children. Let us do what we can to support their fight to rise above their pain and suffering. Housing, hospital and nursing care, as well as other types of treatment cost money. Not all of us can afford to assist financially. But love costs nothing. If it is only love and respect that we can give to a child faced with a life threatening illness, we will have given a lot.

Part of building a new nation means building a spirit of tolerance, love and respect amongst the people of this country.

It is in this spirit that I join you today in this humble act of compassion. Together as a nation, we have the obligation to put sunshine into the hearts of our little ones. They are our precious possessions. They deserve what happiness life can offer.

Source: South African Government Information Website