As we mourn yesterday’s passing of Nelson Mandela, it is an important time to reflect on his great life and the countless people his work impacted. Though many of us know Mandela mainly for his fight against the inhuman apartheid regime and, after 27 years on Robben Island, his work to rebuild South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’ it is today. Maybe less well known is Mandela as a hero for public health.
As the president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela believed that access to healthcare was as important as any other human right. In the late twentieth century, as HIV/AIDS was spreading out of control in Africa, Mandela urged South Africa to take action. In 1992, he gave a speech connecting the spread of HIV to poverty, overcrowding, the poor treatment of women and the migratory labor system. He urged the use of condoms and discouraged stigmatizing words of actions against people living with HIV. Though Mandela regretted not doing more while in office, the reality is that he was operating in a very difficult political environment with AIDS denialism rampant and anger towards the Western world for the prohibitively high price of life-saving antiretroviral drugs. In 2000, though he’d left office, Mandela stepped in to dramatically end the controversy and move the country towards collective action. At the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, he demanded a move away from the disputes that were distracting attention “from the real life-and-death issues we are confronted with as a country, a region, a continent and a world”. That dispute must not go on, he argued. South Africa should be utilizing all of the available resources possible to curb the spread of HIV.