An extraordinary journey" /> Mandela the Aids activist | Mail & Guardian

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Mandela the Aids activist
Noisy demonstrators demanding funds for HIV drugs in the developing world disrupted a major conference on Aids here on Monday but in doing so gained the beaming support of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
  • An extraordinary journey
  • Noisy demonstrators demanding funds for HIV drugs in the developing world disrupted a major conference on Aids here on Monday but in doing so gained the beaming support of former South African president Nelson Mandela.

    Mandela had just finished a speech, demanding access to drugs, and had remained onstage for a prolonged standing ovation when about a dozen activists in the audience unfurled a protest banner and chanted slogans.

    The banner read "Aids donors' lies kill" and they chanted "Treat the six million -- where's the 10-billion?"

    That was a reference to six million people with HIV who are urgently in need of anti-retroviral drugs, and the $10-billion needed annually, according to some estimates, to tackle the global HIV/Aids pandemic.

    The veteran anti-apartheid fighter paused onstage, read the banner, and a gigantic smile broke out on his face. He clapped along to the slogans, and when a protestor, Gaelle Krikorian, vice president of the Paris chapter of the campaign group Act Up climbed on stage, beckoned her to join him, putting his arm around her shoulder.

    Krikorian said:"I told him we need your backing, we need your help. We are at a critical moment," said. "He said he supported us."

    Mandela and other speakers remained on stage for a while, flanked by two security guards, eventually leaving after the house lights went up and the 5 000 participants left the plenary hall.

    In a speech that earned him a standing ovation from 5 000 scientists and grass-roots activists, Mandela punched out at the lazy and the greedy who had helped spawn a global peril, praised those who had tirelessly fought against it, and urged one and all to do more.

    The former South African president said bluntly that despite some successes, the two-decade-old war on Aids had been a shocking failure.

    At least 26-million have already died of Aids, 95% of them in the developing world, and 45-million have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), he said.

    "These numbers are staggering, in fact incomprehensible," Mandela declared. "By all accounts we are dealing with the greatest health crisis in human history."

    Even though science had provided important tools for fighting the peril, many of the tools lay lamentably unused, Mandela said. He was bitterly critical that the cost of anti-retroviral drugs had placed these life-saving medications beyond the reach of the poor.

    Disparity "is a shocking reality that we cannot hide from", he said. "This is a global injustice. It is a travesty of human rights on a global scale."

    Mandela said he was pleased that, at last, "the usual excuse" of insufficient funding was beginning to fade, thanks to an influx of money into the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and bilateral commitments.

    He singled out US President George Bush for praise, noting "the leadership" of the United States and its president in the plan to spend $15-billion over five years to combat Aids in Africa and the Caribbean.

    But, he warned, the promise had better be honoured. "We, the people of Africa, will follow the delivery of this critical commitment with great interest." Where America led, Europe should follow, he said.

    "Given the size of its collective population and economy, Europe should at least be matching if not exceeding the United States' contribution," he said.

    Many African countries were guilty of having failed to face up to the danger of Aids, Mandela said, adding that the noble exceptions were Uganda, Senegal and, more recently, Botswana.

    Mandela sketched an initiative for the next World Aids Day on December 1, when his charity, the Mandela Foundation, will partner the Global Fund to "ask people around the world to give one minute of their life" to fight Aids.

    Large corporations as well as individuals will be invited to pitch in, he said.

    Mandela is an iconic figure at Aids meetings, memorably creating an outpouring of emotion at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, where normally reserved researchers stamped and cheered and climbed on chairs to get a glimpse of him.

    The four-day Paris meeting, which opened on Sunday, mainly gathers science professionals for a council of war on the Aids pandemic. The scientists were lauded for the strides they had made during a two-decade-old campaign, but were also told they faced a foe unique in its stealth and tenacity.

    The meeting, the biggest Aids conference this year and co-hosted by the International Aids Society in Stockholm, takes place every two years, alternating with the International Aids Conference.

    Aids conferences are a traditional forum for rowdy but non-violent protests, aimed at principally at large pharmaceutical companies and donor countries. - Sapa-AFP