Health Opinions

In honour of Mandela, Canada can step up the fight against HIV

Nelson Mandela was arrested for the greater part of his political career

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Those are the words of my grandfather, Nelson Mandela.

On Thursday, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Mandela Day, a day that implores us all to contribute to making the world a better place. Madiba — this is his traditional Xhosa clan name — is a shining example of what an individual can do to transform a nation and the world at large. On Feb. 11, 1990, when the prison gates swung open to let him go after 27 years, he imbued the world with hope for humanity.

As the spectacle of his release was beamed across the world that sunny Sunday afternoon, his slow and purposeful gait showed not just his age — he was 72 — but also the weight of the responsibility that rested on his shoulders. But when he got down to business, granddad didn’t hesitate. He was swift and effective in leading the formation of a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa. By doing that, he altered the course of history.

During his long years in prison, Canada stood up for Madiba by imposing sanctions on the apartheid regime and demanding a democratic South Africa, often putting the country at odds with other leading global economies. Canada and the rest of the world knew that my granddad’s freedom was not just a personal triumph, but a triumph for millions of people who believed in freedom around the world. In 2001, Canada offered my granddad an honorary Canadian citizenship, making him the first living person to be accorded that honour.

As a champion of human rights, Canada has also led the charge in investing in the fight against HIV and the discrimination and stigma associated with the virus.

At the time when Madiba was released from prison in 1990, being infected with HIV was like receiving a death sentence. There was no effective treatment. The disease seemed unstoppable. That changed in 1996 when a new antiretroviral treatment was announced at an HIV conference in Vancouver. Canada and other nations swung into action to provide treatment to save millions of lives around the world. With treatment, people suffering from HIV returned from the brink of death.

In South Africa, we had a slow start in the fight against HIV, but when we recovered from those initial challenges, we fought hard. With international partners, such as the Global Fund, we have sent HIV into retreat. I count many friends who are alive today because of South Africa’s partnership with the Global Fund, in which Canada is a leading force.

Despite this great progress against HIV, some groups have been left behind. For instance, HIV prevalence among adolescent girls and young women in South Africa is nearly four times that of their male counterparts. Sexual violence and lack of opportunities play a major role in this shocking and unacceptable figure. Schools are important incubators of a more just, equal and healthy society — where kids not only learn skills but learn their worth.

My Thembekile Mandela Foundation supports efforts to improve access to health and education in rural areas of South Africa. Inspired by Madiba’s unwavering belief in the benefits of education and health in building a thriving nation, I have dedicated my life to help raise a generation of young people who can dismantle the barriers of gender inequality.

I am also championing the work of the Global Fund and its partners in South Africa and beyond. The Global Fund partnership invests in programs that reduce the disproportionate vulnerability and health risks faced by girls and young women.

It is appalling that nearly 1,000 young women and girls are infected with HIV every day across the world. In my country alone that number is close to 200 a day. This year, the Global Fund is kicking off a fundraising effort to mobilise at least $17.7 billion CAN to invest in ending epidemics. These investments would enable the Global Fund partnership to save 16 million lives over the next three years.

During the Women Deliver conference in June, Canada committed to contributing $1.4 billion CAN annually to women’s and girls’ health around the world. I applaud Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for that leadership. As a strong investor in gender equality and human rights, the Global Fund is a key partner in Canada’s goals to improve women’s health and education.

In that Madiba spirit, Canada can make a difference for the world by increasing its investments in the Global Fund this year. As my granddad said, to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Investing in a healthier world benefits all Canadians, while freeing millions from the burden of diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria



About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende