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'We need to speak out'

2008-07-16 10:01
<b>Nelson Mandela with his son Makgatho in 2000. (Beeld)</b>

Nelson Mandela with his son Makgatho in 2000. (Beeld)

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East London - The death of Nelson Mandela's eldest son was a shattering experience for the world-famous statesman. Yet it didn't stop him from taking a stand and going public with the cause of his son's death - the decision was a turning point in the battle against HIV/Aids.

Mandela's admission that his son Makgatho had died of an Aids-related illness was in stark contrast to a government that stood accused of Aids denial and a president who questioned the very nature of the disease.

But three years later, Makgatho's son, Zwelivelile, believes the honesty that marked that moment has not lived on in his family and community.

"It started and ended with my father," he says, sitting in the round hut where he adjudicates disputes as the chief of Mvezo, Mandela's birthplace. "We've had other deaths after my father and we continue to have Mandelas living with HIV/Aids and we're not speaking out, we're not addressing the problem."

Accompanying taboo

The 34-year-old businessman-turned-tribal leader (pictured left at Mvezo) recalls learning about his father's condition by accident. "The doctor slipped up while giving his diagnosis." It confirmed what Zwelivelile had long suspected, ever since his stepmother had died of the disease two years before.

It was Mandela who decided to go public after Makgatho Mandela's death on 6 January 2005. He had Zwelivelile's full support. "It was our way of breaking the stigma associated with HIV/Aids," he remembers. "It had its impact on society but I don't think we had as positive an impact as we wanted."

Today the rural communities of the former Transkei "homeland" where Nelson Mandela grew up is plagued by the disease - and the accompanying taboo it still carries.

The OR Tambo district, which covers most of the Transkei, has the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids in the Eastern Cape according to the Department of Health. Of the population of over 1.7 million people, 29.7% were HIV+ in 2006.

Mandela spent some of the happiest memories of his childhood in the lush rolling green hills of Mvezo and nearby Qunu. Turquoise huts with dung floors dot the unspoiled hills and women decorate their face with ochre paste.

But the picturesque scenes belie endemic poverty, unemployment and the ravage of a disease that is eating away at the local population.

Across the highway that runs past "the big house", as Mandela's home is known locally, is the Qunu Community Resource Centre. Staff here run an HIV/Aids programme to raise awareness amongst the 18 villages of Qunu. The area has become a tourist spot and the centre has the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund (NMCF) to thank for part of its funding.

But while Mandela's influence runs through Qunu, his honesty in confronting the disease has largely not been emulated.

Andiswa Msongelwa, an HIV co-ordinator at the centre, talks about the weekly funerals that have come to characterise local life. Women go shopping, dress up and cook a feast at these lavish affairs. Anything except admit the deceased died because of Aids-related causes.

Awareness campaigns have missed their target

"Everyone denies it," she says. But door-to-door campaigns are starting to make a difference. "Most of them used to keep quiet about their illnesses and then just died," she recalls. "But at least now they go to the clinic for treatment."

Statistics have shown a slow improvement. In 2005 the district's HIV prevalence was at 33.8% as opposed to 29.7% in 2006.

Programmes like those run by centre go a long way in helping. But their contract with the NMCF ends in October and staff are hunting around for more funding.

Zwelivelile believes that the awareness campaigns run by the Nelson Mandela Foundation have missed their real target.

"The 46664 concerts - who is it catered for?" he asks. "It was held in 2005 in one of the luxury resorts in the Western Cape. This year it was held in London. How are people in the rural areas supposed to gain knowledge of this epidemic?"

But people like Andiswa are determined to make a difference. Despite the orphans, countless funerals and unemployment, the resource centre is focused on solutions. Staff and volunteers teach people about taking medicine and plant vegetable gardens for those affected.

"People do get better," she says, seated in a courtyard in the centre surrounded by paintings done by local children. "At least they are trying."

  • In text photos by Lauren Clifford-Holmes.

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