By Linda Villarosa (BAI Contributing Writer)
It was entirely fitting that the 21st International AIDS Conference kicked off yesterday in Durban, South Africa, on “Mandela Day,” a global celebration of the great man’s birthday.
Sixteen years ago the 13th International AIDS Conference was also held in Durban—the first time in a developing country. The event forced the world to turn its focus to Africa, where the disease had transformed wide swaths of the continent into killing fields. It also changed the global response to the epidemic, opening the door to PEPFAR and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. That year, Nelson Mandela electrified an emotional crowd with his closing address, calling AIDS “a global injustice” and “a shocking reality that we cannot hide from.”
Mandela had chosen his words carefully: At the time South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki was hiding from the reality of AIDS, publicly questioning whether HIV caused the disease and provoking a poisonous denialism that would set back the battle against HIV/AIDS in his country.
In his 2000 speech, Mandela instead attacked the epidemic as “the greatest health crisis in human history.” The crisis was destined to touch him in a personal way: In 2005, his son Makgatho Lewanika Mandela died from AIDS at age 54.
On Monday in Durban’s cavernous International Convention Centre, Makgatho’s son, Ndaba, joined his cousin Kweku, and the two spoke movingly of their grandfather’s work and legacy. “Sixteen years ago my grandfather arrived on this stage at the tipping point,” said Kweku Mandela. “Madiba asked us to do something about HIV/AIDS treatment. I’m humbled to stand before you continuing my grandfather’s legacy in my small way,” he said, using the isiXhosa term of endearment Madiba, or father, that many South Africans use when speaking of the senior Mandela.
The epidemic is now strikingly different from that first Durban conference. In 2000, though antiviral drugs (ARVs) had turned the disease from a death sentence to a manageable illness in Western countries, most Africans had no lifesaving medication. Today 17 million people around the world have access to treatment, including more than half of all HIV positive Eastern and Southern Africans, according to UNAIDS. South Africa now has the largest treatment program of any country in the world with 3.4 million people on ARVs.
In 2000, a spindly 11-year-old boy, no bigger than a fast blink, addressed the conference, asking the world to “care for us and accept us. We are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk. We can talk. Don’t be afraid of us—we are all the same.” No one could turn away from this child who captivated the audience with his big smile and bigger heart—except Mbeki. Seated in the audience, the former South African president walked out before young Johnson finished his speech. The boy died a year later.
By contrast, this year, international superstars Queen Latifah and Common provided an unofficial kick-off to AIDS 2016 on Saturday with a concert urging the world to “keep the promise and stop AIDS.”
At a protest before the event, Latifah, who played an HIV positive mother in the 2007 HBO film “Life Support,” marched alongside the mayor of Durban and the late Nkosi Johnson’s adoptive mother.
And South African-born celebrity Charlize Theron made a dazzling appearance at Monday’s opening ceremony. In language ripped from the social justice script, the Academy Award-winning actress and U.N. Messenger for Peace said:
“The real reason we haven’t beaten this epidemic boils down to one simple fact: We value some lives more than others. We love men more than women. Straight love more than gay love. White skin more than Black skin. The rich more than the poor. Adults more than adolescents.”
Still, some things remain the same. Largely because of stigma, the epidemic continues to harm those least able to beat it back: poor communities of color and so-called key populations, including young women and girls, men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, sex workers, drug users. “HIV incidence among adults is either stable or increasing,” stated conference co-chair Chris Beyrer, M.D., who also pointed to measurable declines in global AIDS funding. “It is too soon to declare victory.”
But also then as now, activists remain passionate, angry and energized. In 2000, hundreds took to the streets to break the silence around HIV/AIDS. On Monday, thousands marched through Durban for a protest organized by South Africa’s Treatment Access Campaign. Chanting and singing in Zulu—half marching, half dancing—the crowd demanded “treatment for all now!”
The issues of girls and women have taken center stage at AIDS 2016, and a number of the event’s key leaders are women. For the first time, the conference is co-chaired by an African woman, Olive Shisana, Sc.D.; the majority of the 750 speakers are women; and women are responsible for most accepted first-author abstracts. During the opening ceremony, four top African singers—Gabon’s Arielle T, Waje from Nigeria, Judith Sephuma from South Africa, and Zimbabwe’s, Selmor Mtukudzi—sang their activism from the main stage with their anthem “Strong Girl.”
In a touching moment of intersectionality, Dr. Beyrer, an openly gay man, asked gay and bisexual men to “end the separation and join our sisters in the fight for better access to care for girls and women.” Dr. Shisana reciprocated asking “all my sisters to join together with our LGBT family to bring our movements together.” In unison, they shouted “no exceptions” before embracing.
Despite technical glitches, Archbishop Desmond Tutu added to the call for a united front with a wise and elegant blessing. “HIV did not reckon with you,” said a frail but feisty Tutu to the crowd via video. “Thank you for proving how much we can achieve when we act together, for each other. God bless you.”
Linda Villarosa runs the journalism program at The City College of New York in Harlem. She has covered the biennial International AIDS Conference since 2002.