Nelson Mandela

 {Photo credit: Eric Miller}Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, accepts the offer to wear an HIV-Positive T-shirt.Photo credit: Eric Miller

(Also see MSH's official statement mourning the death of Nelson Mandela. —Eds.)

I am only one of thousands of young South Africans who left our country in our teen years, fleeing persecution for our political beliefs and actions, and believing that by leaving our country we would regroup and come back to contribute to the overthrow of the apartheid, racist regime.

Did we really believe that would happen?

I must say that the overwhelming urge for us to go on with the struggle and belief was the specter of Nelson Mandela addressing us in “Freedom Square” one day soon. What was most amazing about Madiba is that, for decades, we led protest marches all over the world without even knowing what he looked like, for the regime had banned all pictures of him and all we had was an artist’s impression of what he should have looked like.

{Photo credit: Warren Zellman}Photo credit: Warren Zellman

I remember attending the Durban international AIDS conference in 2000, my first. That was the one where everything was going to turn around and we were going get a handle on the epidemic. Nelson Mandela spoke at that one, in a hall that was the size of three football fields. And the crowd was joyous, raucous, the noise was deafening and it was one of the most memorable days of my life. 

Before Mandela took the stage, a choir made up of kids—none more than 9 or 10 years of age and many much younger—took the stage to sing tribute to the great man and those of us gathering there.

It was charming and sweet. Everyone had a huge grin on their faces. And then I realized that this group of kids was special, maybe overheard someone nearby or perhaps the MC say that this, “was THAT group.” All were infected with the virus, and as I watched these gorgeous children singing so strong, moving and smiling and clapping with everyone, I knew, knew inside, that they probably wouldn’t live much longer.

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