THE BILANYONI AIDS ACTION GROUP PROJECT LAUNCH
BILANYONI : JUNE 1, 2002
I wish to thank wholeheartedly Mr Bafana Msezane, the ABSA Manager for Corporate and Social Investment Services, and ABSA Bank, for having organised this important occasion. It is a great pleasure for me to share this podium with distinguished and venerable representatives of the Anglican church. It was not easy for me to participate in this event as the pressures of my responsibilities at this critical juncture of our history, are indeed overwhelming. However, I felt that the reason we have gathered here today is of such paramount importance that I had to cancel other commitments and prioritise this occasion over anything else. Therefore, I wish to begin my remarks by stating that the point of departure in our fight against HIV/AIDS is, indeed, the need for prioritising it over conflicting or concurring needs. If we are to make progress in this great war of ours against HIV/AIDS, we must, each one of us, make time to provide personal efforts and make a personal contribution.
HIV/AIDS presents unprecedented challenges of an unprecedented nature. HIV/AIDS stands to kill more of our people than all the wars combined together that the Zulu nation and the other people of this province, have fought on this territory since the beginning of recorded time. This connotation by itself gives the measure of what we are confronted with, which is a greater priority than any one for which the people of this province have ever taken up arms before. Likening the challenge before us to a war on HIV/AIDS is not an exaggeration.
Throughout the course of history when people are confronted with overwhelming challenges which are greater than themselves, they are bound to change and grow or to perish. We, as a people, are now confronted with the challenge which forces us to act in a fashion and manner which we never thought before could be consonant with our culture and traditions. The great evolution of mankind from savagery to civilization is marked by behavioural adjustments to overcome challenges. We must accept that the challenge of HIV/AIDS is no exception and that the alternative before us to adjust or die, is very real.
If we are to deal with HIV/AIDS effectively we must talk about the facts of HIV/AIDS openly. We must confront and overcome the stigma which is attached to HIV/AIDS. We must speak openly and accept the facts of human sexuality. We must engage our children, our spouses and our friends in open discussion on the damages facing our Nation as a result of this scourge. We must overcome the traditional features of our culture which left these topics outside the realm of polite conversation. Talking about HIV/AIDS is talking about sex and ways to engage in human sexuality, avoiding the risk of contracting HIV, or infecting others with it. We must engage each other about the various ways in which we can counter the havoc of this scourge. We need to look at the morality that existed in our societies in the past, and we need to look at the teachings of the Church.
We also need to speak about the need to adjust sexual patterns and preferences to reduce the risk that the infection is spread, considering the value of the personal option of abstinence or faithfulness. Even in this respect, the stakes are too high for this issue to be dealt with hypocritically. There is no point in preaching only about abstinence and faithfulness when people end up not following them and become unprepared for sexual relations and expose themselves to unprotected sex. An important feature of the adjustment that the war on HIV/AIDS demands of us, is that of relinquishing ideological preferences or standpoints to focus on what does and does not work from a practical viewpoint. But we as a society cannot in one breath say that we are striving for the moral regeneration of our Nation, in view of the present moral decay, and then concentrate our teachings on protection only, vital as it is, and forget the moral teachings of our church and the moral code of our Nation which existed even before the arrival of the Christian gospel.
We also need to change the existing mind-set in many of our communities relating to the stigma attached to those who are affected by HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS is a plague, is a terrible epidemic disease which may affect all of us. The fact that it is transmitted through sexual activities should not create a stigma, as sexuality is part and parcel of our life. Diseases can be caught in many ways, through food, through water, through the air and through sexual contact. Those affected with HIV/AIDS are not people who have done something wrong, or who are more immoral than the rest of us. They are our brothers and sisters who have contracted a terrible disease and who demand a much greater measure of our love and care than anyone else. They do not deserve to be isolated but they are entitled to demand that we reach out to them with greater love than we would to anyone else. They are the victims of the great evil against which we declared our war, but they share no part in it.
Too many people have died and will continue to die because of the obscurantist mind-set which discourages people from having themselves tested for HIV/AIDS for fear of having to face the consequences that their families, work-places and communities may attach to their being HIV positive. We need to bring about a paradigm change in our families, work-places and communities which encourages people to be tested for HIV and extends human solidarity, affection and compassion to those who are HIV positive. Mrs Patricia de Lille, MP challenged leaders of all political parties to be tested for HIV/AIDS. I went to Durban to be tested and results were sent to her. I do not know of course what she did with the information. But I am just saying that we should even persuade people to go for tests regardless of whether they are ill or not, particularly young people who are still sexually active. Let us make no mistake and recognise that statistically speaking one in each three of us is HIV positive. Therefore, we need to place equal emphasis on avoiding the spreading of HIV/AIDS as we do in respect of caring for those who are HIV positive.
We need to become acquainted with the facts of science relating to HIV/AIDS. These facts must become part and parcel of the ordinary pool of knowledge and information in our families, work-places and communities. HIV is a disease, not a curse. Its circumstances, evolution and features are described and dealt with through science, not superstition. We need to be very harsh and firm in closing the door on superstitious beliefs and utter nonsense, which has contaminated community understanding of HIV/AIDS and indirectly caused the deaths of many of our people because of AIDS. There is no effective cure for AIDS. Raping or having sexual intercourse with a virgin does not cure HIV/AIDS, but is a crime which may cause the death of its victim because of AIDS. AIDS is a fact of science, based on the scientific axiom that HIV causes AIDS.
Science is not static and is constantly open to improvement. Science itself is a method which constantly requalifies what it knows, to the point of what is right today, may become wrong tomorrow. There are a range of new technologies, therapeutic approaches and medicines which are constantly being developed to treat HIV/AIDS. Both government and socially responsible institutions of civil society, such as ABSA, must do whatever they can to encourage the development of new medicines, forms of treatment and therapies. The situation is so pressing, and we must realise that we are, indeed, in a situation of war against HIV/AIDS, that it becomes necessary to accelerate the study and research of new technology and methodologies for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. We can not deal with this matter with the usual procedures which are often lengthy.
In our quest for new treatment we must also overcome the prejudices that effective solutions can only come from established medical convention or from within the parameter of traditional Western medicine. Now, more than ever before, science has no barriers or boundaries. A key element in the fight to improve the life-span of those who are affected by HIV/AIDS, relates to maintaining the effectiveness and capacity of their immune system. In this respect, there is great wisdom in techniques which have been used in our own traditions since time immemorial. African practices have an enormous contribution to make in assisting in the boosting of the immune system and we must ensure that they are thoroughly researched and their value fully capitalized upon. Once again, facts need to be tested through science and science must determine which of our traditional therapies are effective in boosting the immune system. We must overcome the popular notion that all traditional treatment and healing techniques are equally good merely because of their longstanding employment in our communities. All this is part and parcel of the adjustment which we must undertake if we are to win in this war of ours against HIV/AIDS.
Wars are won with courage and personal commitment and this is no exception. I, myself, have engaged in this war, taking positions which were neither easy nor politically expedient. In a matter of this nature, there should be no space for political expediency. For this reason, more than a year ago, I became interested in researching the facts of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS and through my intervention the province of KwaZulu Natal began developing a policy which made it possible for Nevirapine to be administered as widely as possible, to prevent our children from being born with a death sentence on their young lives. It was a matter of bringing about a difficult challenge to establish policy. For this reason I even supported the fact that the province of KwaZulu Natal took the side of the Treatment Action Campaign against the national Government in which I serve, to ensure that our children could be saved from the HIV/AIDS they could acquire from their mothers during birth, even though that might have taken a court order requiring all hospitals to make available the necessary treatment. I did not mind if this meant losing my Cabinet post. That is not even a consideration in the face of the havoc that the scourge is doing to our communities.
There are other things that I have done to turn around the policies on HIV/AIDS in our country, and which I can not mention because they are covered by the secrecy which shrouds our discussions in Cabinet. However, I mention this exactly because I am not at liberty to discuss it openly, and to point out that in respect of HIV/AIDS, as should be the case in respect of all other charitable and humanitarian endeavours, one must do what the heart and conscience demand without expecting any praise, recognition or personal benefit. Each of us has a contribution to make in this war wherever we happen to be, and must do so knowing well that the contribution must be made because it is the right thing to do and that in all probability it will go unnoticed. Like in a war, everyone fights on until the day dies off, but does not receive accolades from his comrades in arms who are doing the same. We must get ourselves into that type of mind-set and expect from all those around us, the maximum commitment in opening our hearts to helping people with HIV/AIDS and spreading the facts and circumstances of this disease. We will not praise those who do so, but shall hold in contempt those who fail to make their contribution.
We must now move the war against HIV/AIDS into its second stage. We must now begin developing programmes to distribute anti-retroviral drugs to those who are infected, commencing from the logical place of suitable work-places where existing clinics could dispense anti-retroviral drugs on a daily basis to employees, together with essential information about the lifestyle necessary to prevent becoming infected with AIDS or living with AIDS.
Across the board we need to spread more information and make greater investments to make information available about HIV/AIDS. We need to create programmes for those who are illiterate and find ways and means to convey complex issues in a simple form. Computers and information technology are now offering the opportunity of bridging the gap between that which needs to be learned by everyone, and the lack of educational foundation and learning skills which still afflicts large segments of our population. Computers can bring knowledge to those who would have difficulty in acquiring it from books, lectures or conventional training.
It is essential that as part of our war against HIV/AIDS, we begin an information campaign which must reach everyone. The most important vehicle of such campaign remains the word of mouth communication, which must begin here and now. The messages that we develop here and now must be conveyed throughout the province. People must know that they must change their ways if they wish to face up to this portentous enemy who is now threatening the very survival of our nation.
I sympathise with people who have buried their children and loved ones because of the AIDS pandemic. I am thinking of people such as Mrs Shongwe who has buried so many of her children who have died of AIDS. To those who have been discovered to be HIV positive, let me stress that although there is no known cure at present for this disease, people who are HIV can live and lead a normal life for many years as long as they take their medication, and in particular boosters to their immune systems, for this virus destroys the immune system, as we all know.
I am proud of young people like Mr Msezane who has through ABSA Bank brought us together today to look at this problem and how we can combat it from day to day. ABSA Bank is a people's bank in every sense of those words, in being involved in these community efforts to face the most serious threat we have ever faced as a people, as a province and as a country.
We are all affected by HIV/AIDS. We are all feeling its pain. I have gone to many funerals of young people. I have seen many people dying because of it, and I know very people who are not affected directly or indirectly by this scourge. However, I have not lost hope. We will win this war. With the help of God we will save our nation, beginning with our children. We will grow stronger through this experience.
Let us come together as brothers and sisters across the entire province and across the whole of South Africa, as we are doing on this occasion. Let us forge a unity of spirit, intent and commitment which will get us over the greatest challenge of our times. Unless we win this war, all that which we have achieved through our struggle for liberation, will be in vain. Let employers and employees, parents and children, black, Indian and white segments of our population, rich and poor, join hands. Throughout history great nations have been forged through war. Let us bring our strength together and together fight this war so that through our joint efforts we may give rise to a new nation which has based its future economic prosperity and social stability on having learned, suffered, fought and succeeded together.