Thank you for the opportunity to come here this evening in support of a cause which is both worthy and extremely relevant within our society. I am delighted to speak to you this evening because I am aware that we are promoting valuable community work in a field where there are great needs still to be met. I am reminded of the words of Christ when He said that the workers are few although the harvest is plenty. I thank God that He has sent workers into the field of HIV/AIDS to counsel, to care for and assist those suffering under this terrible disease. The H.O.P.E. Centre Clinic is providing a better quality of life and a beacon of hope, according to the very principles espoused by our Christian faith. The expression of faith at the Centre’s clinic is practical, valuable and needed in this community, at this time.

Today there is no more avoiding the fact that HIV/AIDS is the biggest crisis our country has ever faced, and certainly the most frightening in our own Province of KwaZulu Natal. The spread of this pandemic has been excessively quick and there are few of us left who do not know someone who has died of AIDS, is living with HIV or is bearing the burden of a suffering friend or relative. There have been too many funerals, and too many are left without husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. The problem of AIDS orphans has sky-rocketed to the point where we must look at a comprehensive policy to deal with what is almost a generation of children without parents, and to deal with the issues this generation will face. In so many cases, someone needs to stand in the gap. Someone needs to be there to help.

This is the role played by the H.O.P.E. Centre AIDS Clinic, which I am given to understand is run by qualified volunteers. I have the utmost respect for people such as these, who have seen a need and are willing to stand up and say "here I am, use me". I am only too aware of the demands of daily life and how often keeping our own heads above water is enough to occupy every moment of our time. Therefore I have always been in awe of volunteer workers who diligently and consistently give of their time, effort and strength to help those drowning in the tides of difficulty and despair. This evening, I wish to pay tribute to all those who are involved in the work of this Clinic and to all who help keep afloat the various community projects which serve our people. I know that there is a blessing in giving. I also know that God will not do without a cheerful giver.

I feel certain that if we were to ask those who serve in this Clinic why they serve, they would speak of the blessing and the joy of giving. Even in the midst of all manner of hardship, there is the certainty of knowing that this work is good, right and needed.

At every level of our society the awareness has hit home that we need to do something to stop HIV/AIDS. I appreciate that within so many of our churches and community organisations, a ministry is branching off that deals specifically with this issue. Civil society has an essential role to play in changing the attitudes and mind-sets of our people, away from the ignorant superstitions about HIV/AIDS, towards compassion, understanding and care. I encourage every body and organisation operating at community level to engage in the fight against HIV/AIDS from the perspective that in order to change our reality, we need to change our actions, and to change our actions we must change the way we think. We must inculcate respect for women and children within our society, and respect for human life. We must return to the notion that one person’s actions affect all of us. This does not demand the curbing of liberty, but rather involves the creation of a society in which the freedom to fulfil one’s highest aspirations may move from a legal right to a real possibility.

At provincial level, KwaZulu Natal has led the battle to limit the damage which HIV/AIDS is causing our people. As we know, the Premier of this Province, Dr LPHM Mtshali, drove the cause of making anti-retroviral drugs available to expectant women in KwaZulu Natal, in opposition to the will of the central government. In this Province, we chose to save lives. We chose to act quickly and decisively to prevent HIV/AIDS from being transferred from mother to child, thereby saving the lives of many babies. In KwaZulu Natal, we chose to stop the onslaught of this disease through any means which is within the control of government. There is a great deal the government cannot do. Government cannot take personal decisions for individual people. Government cannot change the choices individuals make. Civil society and government are going to have to come to agreement on how we can fight HIV/AIDS, and share the commitment of doing so. Moreover, the message sent out to our people cannot just be politically correct. It must be a message of truth that can save lives.

Our national Government has recognised the vast crisis of HIV/AIDS and is engaged in campaigns of information aimed particularly at our youth. The message being sent out is that of condomising for safe sex. People are being urged to speak openly to our children about AIDS, sex and homosexuality, and this is done from the print media, to television, in our schools, on campuses and in communities. In all this, the Church has often been ridiculed for advocating the biblical message of abstinence, on the basis that it is supposedly an unworkable message for a modern generation. In a progressive world in which tolerance is esteemed above all else, the Church is rejected as a moral authority because its message demands personal discipline where our social interactions are concerned. Our society almost rejects out of hand the notion of a moral authority, as restrictive of its personal freedoms, yet the campaign aimed at our youth today has set itself up as nothing less than a moral authority, redrawing the boundaries and suggesting to our youth that everything is good, so long as it involves a condom.

I am reminded of the scriptural caution that even if all things are permissible, not all are beneficial. For me the message of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference is well understood. The Church cannot be intimidated out of its mission of conveying to society the message of the Gospel on morality.

It is vitally important that we get the facts to all our people about HIV/AIDS. It is critical that everyone understands how this disease operates, how it can be prevented and what to do if one should contract HIV. It is important that we educate our people on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, to prolong good health and life as far as possible. It is equally important that we instill a sense of compassion in our people, whereby AIDS victims are not looked upon as outcasts, but as brothers and sisters in need of our love, assistance and acceptance. We need to create a society in which HIV positive people can openly declare their HIV status without fear of rejection, discrimination or the contempt which stems from ignorance. Our people must be encouraged to test for HIV and to seek counselling and guidance if the result is positive.

Having said all this, however, I still believe that there is a central message we have neglected to give our people, and that is the message of abstinence, not only as an option, but as the only 100% certain way of not contracting HIV/AIDS. We are sending every other message to our young people through information campaigns, obfuscating the boundaries of what is conducive to living a life filled with dignity, self-respect and fulfilment. But we have neglected to properly promote the message of abstinence for fear of looking like fuddy duddy old people. It is almost as if, in a desperate attempt to save the lives of our youth, we have disregarded what we believe to be best for them, deciding that children do not need or seek the guidance of adults. We believe this at our own peril. Yes, our youth are interested in sex. At an age when hormones run rife, sex is a great concern for young people. But let us not forget that there are other facets to our young people’s lives.

Our youth need and want to know about building good relationships, based on mutual respect, honesty and trust. They want to know how not to make the mistakes we made, and how to avoid compromising their goals for life. Our youth want to know how to lead, how to create, how to communicate and how to change their world. And if we want to build a strong South Africa with a future of hope, health and prosperity, we need to start giving our young people answers and reasons grounded in fact. When we point to abstinence as a life choice to avoid HIV/AIDS, we need to say, as the H.O.P.E Centre Clinic does, that abstinence is a small price to pay to save one’s life. We need to point out that balanced, lasting relationships are based on something more than sex, and on this basis we need to encourage our youth to seek their own emotional, spiritual and psychological maturity.

What we want to build is a generation that respects human life, recognises its own dignity and is willing to sacrifice personal desires to lead a revolution of goodwill for the benefit of all our people. What we really want in our youth is the kind of quality leadership that we can see in the nine youth members whom we celebrate tonight, who have walked from Port Shepstone to Pietermaritzburg in support of a message of abstinence. These are young people who are determined not to compromise their principles and who are determined to take a stand that is not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others too. I believe it shows a depth of maturity that these nine youth are willing to make a statement about what they believe is a right course of action for other young people. I believe it is time we shake the dogma. Promoting abstinence is not antithetical to expressing tolerance. Promoting abstinence is an expression of the fact that we care enough to want to save lives. In fact, Uganda has demonstrated to all of Africa that levels of HIV/AIDS can be brought down through abstinence and faithfulness to one's partner.

The entire basis of the H.O.P.E. Centre AIDS Clinic is about caring. This community project was begun out of a sense of love and compassion. The volunteers who give of their time and services here do so out of love and commitment to serving our people. The nine youth representatives who walked to promote the message of abstinence did so out of compassion and a commitment to see other young people make life decisions that will afford them the best possible opportunity for a fulfilled life. I am deeply moved by the passion of everyone involved in this community project. If people feel it is a radical measure to promote abstinence in order to save lives, I am grateful that there are those of us who are willing to be radical. In this Province we went against the tide to fight HIV/AIDS and save lives when we took the central government to court over Nevirapine. I believe we are able to go against the tide again to save lives and fight HIV/AIDS, by promoting abstinence. We have always been on the front lines in KwaZulu Natal. Let us be on the front line again when the tide is turned on HIV/AIDS.

This evening, I wish to congratulate the nine youth members who are receiving awards for having promoted abstinence as a powerful and workable message in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I pray that you represent many more among our communities who are willing to take a stand and make a sacrifice for the sake of all our people. Our future depends on young people like you. We need a strong moral leadership among our youth. At this time in its history, South Africa thirsts after a moral authority which is consistent and which commands our respect by having as its clear basis a love for what is good and right and beneficial. I pray that the Church may take up her place again to lead people into life. AIDS has caused too much misery already. Too much has been taken from us. We need someone to stand in the gap.