As the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, some observers are recalling the crucial role he played in advocating for science during the highly fraught AIDS crisis in South Africa. Mandela’s protégé and successor as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, rejected the scientific consensus and espoused the discredited view that HIV does not cause AIDS, popularized by University of California, Berkeley, molecular biologist Peter Duesberg. Mbeki’s refusal to bring the resources of the government to bear against the disease is responsible for 300,000 needless deaths, researchers have estimated.
In Mandela’s first public break with the African National Congress, which he had belonged to and then led over a period of 65 years, in 2001 he denounced Mbeki’s failure to fight the epidemic. “We must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying,” Mandela declared, reports Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail, who was based in South Africa from 2003 to 2008. By then a revered elder statesman, Mandela brought the immense power of his moral standing to the need to change his country’s policies.
Mandela, however, “arrived late” to the struggle against the disease, according to The Globe and Mail. During his own presidency, he gave relatively little attention to the rapidly growing epidemic and put Mbeki in charge of dealing with it. This approach allowed the infection to spread. Mandela had to give priority to even more critical matters during the first, crucial days of establishing nonracial democracy in the long-troubled country, his supporters argue.
Once Mandela came out on the side of accepting and vigorously acting on science, however, he became a powerful and effective advocate, helping turn the tide of opinion and policy in his own country and elsewhere. In 2005, Nolen reports, Mandela struck a strong blow against the disease’s tremendous social stigma in South Africa by announcing that his own son, Makgatho, “has died from AIDS,” as had Makgatho’s wife. “Let us give publicity to HIV-AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness, like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV. And people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary,” Mandela said at Makgatho’s funeral.
Mandela’s life demonstrated the value of forgiveness and reconciliation in human affairs, but also the importance of political leaders in espousing and acting on the best science.