Address by Nelson Mandela at launch of HIV/AIDS awareness strategy for construction industry, Qunu

21 October 2002

Thank you for inviting us to participate in this very important occasion of the launch of the HIV/AIDS programme for the construction industry by the National Department of Public Works.

We are proud to be associated in this manner with an effort that demonstrates the seriousness of our national government to tackle the AIDS pandemic in a comprehensive and co-ordinated manner.

We want to congratulate and commend Minister Stella Sigcau for taking this initiative and for giving the lead in addressing the issue in an industry and area of economic activity where the pandemic occurs with such alarmingly high incidence. It is through this kind of leadership daring to be seen at the forefront of the battle that we stand the best chance of defeating this threat to our national life and future.

The enormity of the threat posed by HIV/AIDS cannot be overstated.

HIV/AIDS is a danger to all of our people - young and old, rich and poor, men and women, those in the cities and those in the countryside.

HIV/AIDS is the greatest danger we have faced for many, many centuries.

HIV/AIDS is worse than a war. It is like a world war. Millions of people are dying from it. As we speak now, there are thousands of people dying from it this moment.

But this war can be won. This is one war where each and every one of us can make a difference. It is through the combined efforts of all of us that we stand the best chance of victory in this war against HIV/AIDS.

In recent weeks and months we have seen greatly encouraging signs that different sectors of our society are with growing urgency responding to this grave challenge.

Just recently we have learnt of the meeting between the Deputy President and the Treatment Action Campaign where, it is reported, they agreed to a plan for the provision of treatment in the public health sector.

We have learnt of the efforts of a number of corporations in the private sector to roll out treatment to their employees and we are confident that the co-operation and partnership between the public and private sector will increase and deepen.

You will know that we have spoken out consistently for our government to provide access to treatment in the public sector even while the pilot schemes to test the effects of treatment are still going on. We said that we agree with the government's approach of testing the effects, but at the same time we should allow people suffering from the disease to have access to the treatment at their own risk where they so choose.

We are greatly encouraged by the indication that government is in fact moving in that direction and once more we commend them.

In our insistence on the provision of such treatment we did, however, equally insistently make the point that treatment was but one part of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. Education, raising of awareness and change of sexual behaviour are integral parts of that overall strategy.

In fact, the efforts to provide treatment by government and an increasing number of corporates are because of such growing awareness about the pandemic and its effects.

The Department of Public Works has chosen to add its contribution to the national awareness campaign by requiring construction firms to submit their own awareness plans if they wish to acquire contracts from the Department.

In an industry that employs so many people, this is a very important step. We must find all manners possible to extend the awareness of HIV/AIDS to every level and every area of our society, in fact to every individual in our country.

It is through talking about this disease, knowing how it occurs, being aware of the grave threat it poses and knowing that its occurrence can be prevented and its spread curbed, that we stand the best chance of overcoming it.

Ignorance and being ill-informed are the greatest enemies in this war.

We need to overcome all forms of stigmatisation of those tested HIV positive or suffering from AIDS. It is when we whisper behind our hands, when we turn away from those suffering with the disease that we prevent ourselves and others from having full knowledge about the pandemic and its effects.

The Department of Public Works has now taken a lead in a sector where it has responsibility. The construction industry has been asked to play its role as employers and corporate citizens. Ultimately it will be individual citizens, all of us, who bear the responsibility.

Let us speak openly about sexuality, about relationships, about HIV/AIDS and about how we can contribute to and be part of that battle against the pandemic. The battle starts with awareness.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation