Certain dates are inextricably linked in my mind. 1 December cannot be disassociated with 24 April and 5 August, for these are the dates in 2004 when I lost my son and my daughter to HIV/Aids. As World Aids Day is commemorated across the globe, in my home we remember Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict and Princess Mandisi Sibukakonke.
They were both in the prime of life and they both fought valiantly to stay healthy after being diagnosed HIV positive. It was a difficult journey for my family, for South Africa had not yet begun talking about this disease, despite it already being a pandemic in our country. We were not ashamed of our children, but our hearts were wounded for their sake, for the stigma of shame and secrecy still had its impact.
When Prince Nelisuzulu succumbed to Aids, I stood at his funeral and did what no other leader had had the courage to do. I announced that my son had died of Aids. Until then, people only spoke of the opportunistic illnesses that accompany Aids, so many were said to have died of TB or Influenza when indeed it was Aids that killed them.
But I spoke openly because I recognised that the veil of secrecy had to be torn down if we were to fight this disease with any success. People had to start talking about HIV, what it was, what caused it and how we could stop the spread.
As a leader in my country, I felt convicted to take the first step.
I was gratified when former President Nelson Mandela did the same a few months later, when he lost his son to HIV/Aids. I often say that Mandela and I were not the first to lose children, and we would not be the last. But I believe that breaking the taboo ultimately saved lives, and certainly made the lives of those suffering with this disease a little easier.
I have played my part in the fight against HIV/Aids, and will continue to do so.
I wear an Aids ribbon every day, not only on 1 December, because this cause is on my mind constantly. As the Treatment Action Campaign celebrates 10 years of anti-retrovirals being made available in South Africa, I feel gratified to have been a part of that victory.
The IFP joined the TAC in its Constitutional Court battle to force national Government to do what we in KwaZulu Natal were doing to save lives. Under the IFP’s leadership, KwaZulu Natal led the charge in rolling out anti-retrovirals in order to save lives.
For all those living with HIV and Aids today, and for their families, this remains a difficult struggle. Thus South Africa’s commitment to fight the disease must be escalated. I challenge individuals with influence to stand up and make a difference, taking this fight further in their own unique way.
Each one of us has influence over our own health and our own lives. Let 1 December remind us to make the right choices
By Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP