In November of 2003, I was invited to take part in a special concert held in Cape Town, South Africa, to celebrate and publicize the launch of Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS Foundation, named after his former prison identity number, 46664.
It was an exceptional event, with performances by Bono, Peter Gabriel, Beyoncé, Queen, and Youssou N’Dour, among many other wonderful musicians. The following day, all the artists were invited to join Mandela for a press conference to be held in Robben Island prison, the place of his incarceration for almost twenty-seven years.
|I want to see women and girls given the same basic human rights and resources that I’ve been privileged to take for granted for five decades.
As we gathered together in the exercise yard in front of his former cell, facing a sizeable assemblage of international press and photographers, we were about to witness a speech that was to have such a personal impact and influence upon me that it would kick- start the journey of activism and advocacy I’ve been passionately dedicated to ever since.
Mandela spoke about the HIV/AIDS pandemic as it was affecting the entire nation of South Africa, especially with regard to women and children, describing the situation as a literal “genocide,” a term that carries such resonance and weight that it can never be used lightly. People could not access treatment on the scale that was needed, and as a result, thousands of lives were being wiped out on a daily basis. In 2003, 17 million people had already died of HIV-related causes. Today the death toll stands at more than 30 million.
Since the mid-1980s, I had been very much aware of the ravages of AIDS and had supported several stalwart organizations, taking part in the Red Hot and Blue project, the first campaign of its kind to raise awareness and funds. A few years later, I performed with Queen and David Bowie for the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert.
Several of my own friends and associates had died. They were all gay men.
But later on down the line, throughout the nineties, I had been far less aware as to how the virus was afflicting the lives of millions of women and children, most often leading them to painful and premature deaths. It was a horrifying and shameful situation. Why wasn’t this monstrosity emblazoned across the headlines of newspapers, television, and radio everywhere?
Why did it seem to be virtually invisible?
While epidemics of bird flu and swine flu received massive coverage and media attention, why didn’t the African HIV/AIDS pandemic warrant a similar global response?
If Coca-Cola could be distributed to every corner of the earth, then why couldn’t life-saving treatment be made available to everyone who needed it? Baffled and outraged, I started asking questions in order to understand what was actually happening, recognizing the terrible irony in the fact that the post-apartheid citizens of South Africa had inherited a country that was faced with the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.
HIV/AIDS is the biggest global killer of women of reproductive age. One in three pregnant women in South Africa is HIV positive. As a mother, I have something in common with billions of women around the planet. And no matter which culture, creed, or social/economic strata we emerge from, fundamentally, every mother wants the same thing. We want our children to be able to lead happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives, with access to resources and security. And as I began to meet women and girls faced with no choices, no resources, no access to reproductive healthcare or family planning support – indeed, with no hope – I knew I had to do something to try to make a difference.
In 2005 I was invited to take part in the second 46664 event, held in the historic town of George in the Western Cape of South Africa. There, poverty delineates a starkly striking contrast on the other side of affluence, while HIV/AIDS steadily destroys lives.
Saint Mary’s is a small hospital there. With 46664 as a calling card, we (a small group of artists) were invited to pay a visit. With Graca Machel graciously at the helm, we were welcomed by a lively ensemble of nurses and staff: “Thank you for coming here!” “We welcome you!” “Thank you!” “Thank you!”
Three years before, Saint Mary’s had been established to address the needs of the people of George who were infected by HIV/AIDS. At that point in time, the hospital was generally viewed with a high degree of suspicion, with people mistakenly believing that it would bring the virus directly into their midst – ignoring the fact that AIDS was already there, and the hospital was the best thing that could happen to address the situation. The township had been fearful and hostile. Nurses, doctors, and patients had been regularly attacked with stones. Regarded as dangerous and untouchable, people stricken with full-blown AIDS were frequently abandoned by their families at the front gates.
However, three years after the establishment of the hospital, people’s attitudes had become more informed, and as a result, Saint Mary’s had now become accepted and appreciated.
We walked somewhat tentatively through the wards. I will never forget the sight of an emaciated man/skeleton, with vacant glassy eyes, and a tiny baby-bird-like, three-year-old girl, weighing less than a bag of sugar. These hauntingly disturbing images of illness and affliction were harrowing. But in extreme contrast, the spirit and dedication of the doctors and staff was absolutely inspirational. Despite all the advancements of the post-industrialist and technological revolution, we appear to have lost our way in terms of a shared sense of global human rights, values, and responsibility. As a result we have become impoverished in an entirely different kind of way.
Imagine living in a remote rural environment, where the health care clinic is several miles away. You have no means to afford transport, and can only get there by foot. If you’re desperately ill with AIDS- related pneumonia, your life depends on making that journey. So people are lifted into wheelbarrows, or lifted up onto someone’s back, to be pushed or carried for miles under the blazing sun or heavy rainfall. When they finally make it to the clinic, they usually encounter the kind of queue that will take a full day to process, and most likely there will be no doctor in attendance to properly diagnose or prescribe medical treatment, so the long journey begins once more, to return back home, defeated by poverty all over again.
Broken down, overburdened public healthcare systems, the lack of trained doctors and nurses, lack of facilities, no access to medication – all these factors play into the HIV/AIDS pandemic with devastating consequences.
As an AIDS activist, I have to stay committed and focused on what can be done, particularly in regard to girls and women. Sometimes the challenges seem overwhelming but that doesn’t mean that you can simply step back and walk away. In my life I’ve had the benefits of good medical care, education, legal rights and security, clean running water, democracy, freedom of speech, among many others.
I want to see women and girls given the same basic human rights and resources that I’ve been privileged to take for granted for five decades.