Annie Lennox delivered the opening speech at the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa in South Africa in the weekend, just days after learning of the death of Nelson Mandela.
“As we are gathered here for the opening of the 17th ICASA, two days after the passing of our beloved Nelson Mandela, we need to ask ourselves a question – if he were here, what would he ask of us?" she said in her speech. "The legacy of Nelson Mandela is not simply a static piece of history… and it should never be left or interpreted as such.
“This extraordinary man, this exceptional leader who taught the world so much through his own personal sacrifice and dedication, never wished to be placed upon a pedestal or deified through the lens of media celebrity or the cult of personality.
“His example was courageous, visionary and filled with a rare sense of human empathy and integrity.
“Before he retired from public life several years ago, he shared one simple but resonant statement…”It’s in your hands". We need to take a moment to reflect upon that…
“Each of us, individually or collectively, can either respond and engage wholeheartedly with everything he stood for, or allow his message to simply evaporate.
“It is easy to stand on the shoulders of giants when the steps have been paved by the efforts and sacrifices of others. It is easy to inherit a windfall of benefits and relax in the apathy and indifference of your personal comfort zone… but to engage with the challenges – and commit one’s life to the service of a higher principle than mere self interest is a truly noble and transformative path. Madiba categorically walked his talk. Now we must do the same.
“Ten years ago in 2003, when musicians like myself were invited to take part in the launch of 46664 – Mandela’s HIV/AIDS Foundation – the pandemic was out of control and things were absolutely desperate.
“Madiba personally and publicly declared that "a genocide was taking place in the “rainbow nation,” with women and children as the front line victims". The situation was so extreme that it was hard to grasp or comprehend the scale of the horrendous facts and statistics. People were literally dying like flies, funeral tents were everywhere and graveyards were full to overflowing. Elderly grandmothers were having to take care of orphaned grandchildren … and hundreds of thousands of children were either taken in by orphanages or abandoned to their fate.
“Now, ten years later, in 2013 we are at a point where in many respects the destructive tidal wave of HIV and AIDS is actually being turned around. Globally – new HIV infections among adults and children have been reduced by 33%.
“With more access to antiretroviral treatment, AIDS related deaths have dropped by 30% since the peak in 2005. New HIV infections in children have come down by 50%.
“By the end of last year, 9.7 million people in low and middle income countries were accessing antiretroviral therapy – an increase of 20% in just one year.
“Here in South Africa more than 2 million people are receiving the life and health sustaining treatment they require, in comparison to a decade ago, when there was almost no access to antiretroviral therapy… almost all women are being tested for hiv during pregnancy… almost all pregnant women are being treated to prevent their babies from being infected… and almost all women are delivering HIV negative babies. 98% of babies are being born HIV negative in South Africa… an incredible achievement that we can all celebrate!
“This nation has responded to the pandemic in an exemplary way.
It is an amazing success story.
“But while we celebrate these successes, we also realise that so much still remains to be done. South Africa has the largest prevalence of sexual violence in the whole world, with one in four men admitting that they have “raped” someone…
“Sexual violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s increased vulnerability to HIV.
“It is time for leaders across the african continent – and leaders everywhere to commit to taking concrete action to stop violence against women and children, by implementing the policies which effect change. Talking is not enough – we need action and accountability.
“As a younger person, I was deeply inspired by the anti apartheid movement and I passionately believe in the cause of racial equality, civil rights and equal opportunity for all.
“With the best constitution in the world, this is what the nation of South Africa is actually meant to uphold and represent!
In the same way that as a woman and a mother I naturally feel a profound sense of connection to all women and children around the globe.
“It is therefore completely unacceptable to me – as it should be to all of us – that one thousand women become infected with HIV in Sub Saharan Africa every single day.
“Now more than ever, we must commit to reaching our goal of a world with zero discrimination, zero new infections and zero AIDS related deaths.
“We’ve come a long way… and we can be truly proud of what’s been achieved so far.
“We owe it to Mandela to ensure that this dream is ultimately realised and fulfilled.”