Mandela energizes AIDS fight

In honor of the former South African president's 85th birthday Friday, MTV will air a worldwide tribute.

If anyone has earned the right to rest on his accomplishments, it's the man who a decade ago freed South Africa from the bonds of apartheid.

Instead, Nelson Mandela is using his fame and moral authority to help overthrow another oppressor shackling much of Africa: AIDS.

From European-summit podiums to corporate boardrooms to an MTV studio here, the man whose name one American survey said was the second most recognized brand after Coca Cola, is dedicating himself to what he calls "the greatest health crisis in human history." Mr. Mandela's global campaign to raise money and awareness is opening ears and pocketbooks which have often remained closed for others.

"I think Mandela has stimulated the world back into action," says Junaid Seedat, managing director of Massive Effort, a campaign that raises awareness about AIDS issues. "His stance in the world is something different, it's not something we're going to see again in the next hundred years or so."

Mandela, known here as Madiba, still keeps a punishing schedule. On Monday, he was in Paris, calling on European nations to match President Bush's $15 billion pledge for AIDS. By Wednesday, he was back in South Africa, speaking at a school in his home province of Eastern Cape, about the need to end stigma against people who are HIV-positive.

Friday, in honor of Mandela's 85th birthday, MTV will premier an hour-long documentary, "Meeting Mandela: A Staying Alive Special," in which he talks with young people about AIDS, reconciliation, and the need to keep fighting for important issues. Producers hope that 2 billion young people will see the program, which airs Friday night in the US at 8 p.m., on the company's international channels, and on local stations around the world.

Bearing fruit

Mandela's whirlwind activity is starting to bear fruit. Just two days after his Paris speech, French President Jacques Chirac and other European Commission presidents pledged an extra $1 billion to the United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

It's back home in South Africa, however, where his efforts are most visible. South Africa has more people who are HIV-positive than any other country in the world, among them several members of the former president's own family. But the government has resisted providing antiretroviral drugs to people with the disease, despite its own report, which says the drugs could save 1.7 million lives by 2010. That report, which has been finished for months but not released to the public, was leaked earlier this week to the local media.

A traditional African elder for whom speaking about sex and condoms comes with difficulty, Mandela now acknowledges that he did not do enough to fight the disease during his own presidency.

"He admitted that HIV was stigmatized, that talk about sex was personally uncomfortable - culturally uncomfortable, politically uncomfortable," says Mark Heywood, secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African group lobbying the government for AIDS drugs. "But the turnabout is because the period after his presidency is the period when AIDS has become very visible."

These days Mandela seems to be making up for lost time. Through his two funds, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, he is financing a host of AIDS projects ranging from scientific surveys on the extent of the disease to programs for AIDS orphans and projects with traditional leaders.

He has also championed the need for AIDS treatment, despite the position of his own party, the governing African National Congress.

Last year, he made a public visit to the house of Zakie Achmat, an HIV-positive activist with TAC, who is refusing to take antiretroviral drugs until the government changes its policy. He also visited a pilot antiretroviral project in a township outside Cape Town, run by the French charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and is now helping to fund two new antiretroviral pilot programs, one run by MSF and another by the South African Medical Association.

People involved with both projects say Mandela's association with the programs has made it easier to raise money and gain the support of key government officials. Mandela's outspokenness has also helped change public attitudes toward the disease.

Message: love and care

From his fruit and vegetable stall, Joseph Tshoko watches people visit the MSF offices, some wearing shirts saying "HIV-positive." "It helps because when he speaks, it makes people listen," he muses. "And Mandela tells us to care for people with AIDS."

As he carries his AIDS message around the world, Mandela has retained his characteristic reserved decorum. He doesn't talk about the details of sexual protection or directly criticize the ANC government's stance on AIDS.

What he does say, however - often quietly but with resounding force - is that people with AIDS need love and care. The message is not that different from the one he preached in 1991 when he emerged from prison after 27 years. With more than 42 million people infected world wide, this may be his most important one yet.

"The stigma is something that kills human beings," Mandela tells a 22-year-old HIV-positive activist from Uganda in the MTV film, "sometimes far more than the disease."

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