Remembering Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Anti-Apartheid Hero and Leading Voice in the Global Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Nelson Mandela
Gareth Davies Collection/Getty Images Entertainment

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (pronounced ho-li-SHLA-sa man-DE-la) was a South African statesman and anti-apartheid revolutionary who became the symbol of human rights and reconciliation as he and his political allies fought to dismantle the institutional racism of the governing National Party. He was the first black South African to be elected President, an office which he held from 1994 to 1999, and the recipient of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors.

Known affectionately to his countrymen as "Madiba" (the name of the Xhosa tribe to which he belongs) and "Tata" (father), Mandela was also regarded as a leading voice in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

Born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo (population 403), Mandela died of respiratory complications on December 5, 2013, at his home in Houghton Estate in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela was 95.

Years of Revolutionary Struggle

As a young man, Mandela lived up to his given name, Rolihlahla, which roughly translates to "troublemaker" in Xhosa. It was at the age of 25 when Mandela, then a law student at the University of Witswaterstrand in Johannesburg, began spending time with young activists associated with the African National Congress (ANC), the party founded in 1923 to oppose injustices against black South Africans.

As Mandela rose through the ranks of the ANC, he and political allies were confronted by the codified apartheid legislation of the National Party, which won the parliament majority in the 1948 national elections.

While initially committed to non-violent protest, Mandela's views began to change in 1955 after the demolition of Sophiatown, an all-black suburb of Johannesburg; and later the 1959 Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protesters were killed by police for decrying "pass laws" designed to segregate whites from blacks.

In 1961, the increasingly militant Mandela co-founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), a faction of communist radicals responsible for the bombing of military installations, power stations, and other government facilities. These acts of sabotage—usually performed at night to avoid casualties—culminated with 57 separate bombings on December 16 (the Afrikaan's holiday of Dingane's Day), with further attacks on New Year's Eve.

Mandela was arrested on August 5, 1962 along with his co-conspirators, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Their treason trial brought global attention to anti-apartheid group, with calls for their release from the likes of the World Peace Organization and United Nations, among others.

Despite pleas from supporters, Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island on June 12, 1964, and would spend the next 26 years of his life both there and in two other prisons in nearby Cape Town and Paarl.

An End to Apartheid

During his internment, international condemnation of South Africa's apartheid government (which included crippling economic sanctions), put Mandela further in the spotlight.

With the appointment of F.W. De Klerk to the office of President in 1989, negotiations began in earnest for his release.

Finally, on February 11, 1990, Mandela was released from Victor Vester Prison in Paarl, an event that was broadcast across the world as he departed the prison with then-wife Winnie Madikizela.

From 1990 to 1991, Mandela would lead a multiracial ANC delegation to negotiate the end of apartheid with the ruling party. Finally, a peace accord was signed on September 14, 1991, paving the way to free democratic elections in 1994. The election resulted in the ANC taking 62% of the national vote, ushering Mandela to the office of the Presidency on May 10, 1994.

From Silence to Solution: Mandela's Record on HIV/AIDS

Mandela's term as President of South Africa was largely centerpieced by the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which aimed to redress human rights abuses during the apartheid years and, in doing so, bridge the cultural and racial divides that many feared might topple the unsteady peace.

During this period of economic and social uncertainty, HIV was clearly devastating much of the African continent. Countries like Uganda had already begun to make assertive strides in combating the pandemic, while doctors in South Africa (some of whom had established HIV clinics as far back as 1989) made desperate pleas to establish a national plan of action.

The calls went largely unanswered, with Mandela appointing Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to oversee the government response. Mbeki, today considered one of the leading AIDS denialists, devoted much of his time to non-sanctioned research on Virodene, a supposed HIV remedy whose main ingredient was an industrial solvent used in the production of acrylic and pesticides.

Further complicating the issue was the adoption of the much-criticized National AIDS Plan, which re-routed policy oversight from the office of the President to that of the Minister of Health, distancing Mandela even further from the leadership role he would later take.

By the time the scale of the pandemic became glaringly apparent—eventually reaching a staggering 1,000 deaths per day—party leadership had been passed to Mbeki, who would spend much of the next five years of his presidency questioning the link between HIV and AIDS.

Often reluctant to challenge the party to which he was indelibly a part, Mandela instead submerged himself in a number of key charities that advanced the cause both internally and internationally. Among them:

  • The Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, founded 1995, whose mission included the Goelema Project designed to assist youth and families affected by HIV/AIDS.
  • 46664, a philanthropic organization named after Mandela's prison ID number, which raised funds through a series of globally broadcast AIDS charity concerts, product endorsements, and public/private donations.
  • The Tshepang Trust, a non-profit charity created in 2002 in direct response to government inaction, which provided antiretrovirals (ARVs) and medical treatment to many in the public sector.

It was during of founding of the Tshepang Trust that Mandela moved to the forefront of the HIV/AIDS leadership. Having seen his godchild recover from an HIV-related infection after receiving antiretroviral therapy, Mandela became more vocal in his call to the government to implement the rollout of ARVs to the population-at-large.

That same year, Mandela appeared at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, calling for leaders to provide a coordinated response to HIV and tuberculosis (TB). Himself a victim of TB during his internment at Robben Island, Mandela's call foreshadowed research that confirmed an HIV/TB co-infection rate of 55% in South Africa.

By 2004, the Mbeki government was considered the pariah of the global HIV community, with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang extolling the therapeutic properties of garlic and lemons at the 15th International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Later that year, in a glancing rebuke of government policy, Mandela asked:

"When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of a global crisis, or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?"

Soon after, standing alongside clinicians and members of the Treatment Action Campaign activist group, Mandela welcomed the long-awaited government antiretroviral rollout—today the largest, free HIV drug initiative in the world.

Sadly, the celebration of that milestone was short-lived for Mandela when it was announced in early 2005 that his son, Makgatho, had died of HIV-related pneumonia at the age of 55.

The Later Years

Though largely silent in later years as the ANC faced internal dissent and charges of corruption (including a controversial arms deal in which Mandela's successor, Jacob Zuma, was indicted for bribery), Mandela continued to contribute to such causes as The Elders, a global human rights initiative founded by Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and South Africa's successful bid to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.

Mandela was hospitalized repeatedly from 2011 to 2013 for recurrent a lung infection. His last televised appearance on April 29—in which he appeared frail and non-responsive during a home visit from Zuma—was widely criticized as being exploitative of the former leader.

Shortly before Mandela's death, Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign wrote that "it is conceivable that without Mandela... the country would have descended into chaos," and that, despite the mishandling of the AIDS crisis during his presidency, "his greatness outshines his errors."

Mandela is survived by his wife Graça Machel; former wife Winnie Madikizela; daughters Makaziwe, Zindziswa and Zenani; and 31 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The HIV/AIDS Channel of is pleased to have been named one the "Best HIV/STD Health Blogs" of 2015 by the editors of San Francisco-based Healthline.


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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "CDC's HIV/AIDS Care and Treatment Programs in South Africa: TB and HIV." Atlanta, Georgia; December 5, 2011.

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Mandela, N. "Speech by Mr. N R Mandela the the 46664 Tromso Concert." African National Congress Archives. Tromso, Norway; June 11, 2004.

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