The Aids war can be won – Resolve in fight against disease must not flag

 

The convener invited us all to pick up a rock from a pile outside and place it on the floor in the hall if we had lost, or known, someone in our circle who had died of HIV/Aids. The racially diverse audience engaged in this ritual and the pile of rocks on the floor in front of our convener grew exponentially. 

We were united in our silence, in our sadness and in our sense of belonging to one another through this shared experience of loss. 

This scene has been repeated in communities across South Africa. I wonder what the impact would be if our members of Parliament had interacted in this way on the floor of the National Assembly. What a statement it would be – breaking taboos and stigmas, and leading our nation in admitting to the challenges we still face in addressing what remains a national emergency. 

Today is the first World Aids Day to be commemorated under the Zuma administration, in which it is clear that the era of Aids denialism is over. 

While young leaders across the political spectrum squabble over whether to institute genocide charges against former president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, for the senseless loss of life of thousands of South Africans, it seems clear that, irrespective of whether this occurs, we cannot ever again allow such a failure of accountability to threaten the lives of our fellow citizens. We must continue to break through the walls of silence and ignorance, and fight stigma, blatant ignorance and an absence of knowledge in our society if we are to succeed in the fight against HIV/Aids. 

We have to continue to treat HIV/Aids as a national emergency. We must ensure that our political leaders lead from the front in the fight against HIV/Aids. It would be a welcome development indeed to see more leaders in public and private life take a public HIV/Aids test to stimulate a flood of people to testing centres to ensure that our citizens all know their status. 

We must build partnerships between the public and private sector to ensure that we plug any gaps in funding for HIV/Aids programmes. 

We must continue public awareness programmes to send clear signals about prevention, but we also have to address specific structural issues in our society that contribute to the disease’s spread, such as structural inequality, power relations between men and women in a patriarchal setting, and the phenomenon of orphans and their specific challenges in child-headed households. 

South Africa has a new administration, a new minister of health and a renewed financial commitment to fighting the disease that threatens our collective future. 

We have emerged from a dark period of denialism and new levels of leadership hold the promise of change.  We have a duty to ensure that we become involved with the greatest challenge of our time if we are to meaningfully contribute to building our society. 

Only when we become engaged can we all leave the robust legacy of a society that cared enough to bring change to successive generations that can live free of HIV/Aids.

December 2009
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