A long time ago, I was someone who worked all day, every day to end AIDS. I did so because my generation was dying. We were wasting away and we had a president who didn’t want to listen to us, so it seemed like the sensible thing to do. We were only recently supposed to be free, so he stunned us. This was not supposed to happen.
His obtuse attitude to AIDS was an indicator of the other ways in which he did not want to listen to all of us – his people – and so it seemed to many of us that the best thing to do was to challenge him. I believed then, as I still do today, 20 years later, that the government has a responsibility to provide the sorts of basic services to its people, that will prevent them from becoming needlessly sick, or from suffering needless indignities. And what indignity is necessary?
So today, although I am no longer as active on AIDS on a daily basis, I maintain my commitment to accountability and to the dignity of all people even though I do not do as much as I would like to.
Over the years I have spent more of my time thinking about race and inequality and poverty – just as my president did all those years ago. And I have wondered how we could agree that black life has little meaning in so many contexts, and yet come to such starkly different conclusions about what to do with this analysis.
That second president of our country believed that AIDS was the invention of people who thought that black life was inconsequential, and black men were diseased and over-sexed. He thought AIDS could only be the figment of the fevered imaginations of white men.
I, on the other hand, saw how many Africans had to die before AIDS was taken seriously. I thought that the piling up of our tired and lonely bodies was indictment enough. There did not need to be a greater conspiracy – inaction was conspiracy enough. As I lost friends and comrades, the irony of Mbeki’s stance, the inaction and callousness of his minister, the silence of this Cabinet – all of these forced me to re-evaluate my belief in the leadership of this country. My loss of faith was almost total, and I would be lying if I said it has ever recovered.
Today, it is hard to think about AIDS without thinking about betrayal. Yet it is also impossible to think about it without considering the enormous grace and courage with which South Africans of my generation addressed AIDS. This year in particular, as I consider the achievements of the students who continue to insist that the cost of education should decrease and that the symbol of Rhodes must be challenged, I am mindful of how precarious all gains are in the face of those with power, and how necessary it has become once again to be fearless.
I think all of these thoughts because I remember Zackie Achmat on a treatment strike. I remember him getting thinner and thinner until finally Madiba had to come to him and say, “Please stop, we love you and we need you.”
I remember when the Treatment Action Campaign activists tried to arrest Manto Tshabalala Msimang. I remember the first time my name suddenly felt like a scarlet letter, I remember thinking that I could no longer wear it like a badge of honour.
I remember marching and crying when it seemed as though the marching would make no difference. I remember driving comrades to the doctor and wondering if they would live or die. I was there in 2006 when the beetroot and garlic stand at the AIDS Conference caused Department of Health officials to cringe, and when we booed and sang and derided the government all the way across the world. I remember everyone who spoke out, and I remember that there were many in power who did not. And I remember the day that Cabinet finally said, “Yes, we will set aside R3 billion from Treasury to pay for ARVs”. How we danced and were jubilant.
People today are alive because of the acts of people far braver and more consistent than me, but I remember all of this and my own small part. Today I understand that the state has contracted and that the temporary zero increase is not enough just like the R3 billion in 2007 was also not enough.
I am told that the thousands of men who are still to scared to test for HIV, and the thousands more who die because they cannot take medicine for a disease they have not tested for, are in jeopardy because our economy is not functioning. I am told by comrades who are still on the front lines – and there are many – that the women who are taking anti-retrovirals and are working or waiting for jobs will soon need new and more expensive medicines, and the money will one day soon run out. I am aware that it costs money to put up billboards and train teachers, and teach men to have respect. These things, I am told, work well; they are good interventions, but that they are not cheap.
And so this week, as we are called upon by the people who co-opt these themed weeks to think about AIDS and to use condoms, and to stop stigma, and all of that, I remember where we have been. I remember, and I am afraid because I know that we have never been to this new place. We are strangers in this place where our government says “yes” to our demands, but does not know where to get the money to make its promises true. We are visitors here in this country in which the activists are angry, but don’t believe in the Constitution because they have been let down by the language of rights and the absence of scruples. We are innocents, orphans in a land where leaders have no moral authority, and so cannot face the young whose mouths are full of questions.
We have reached the end of an era in which the state can promise technical solutions: The taps are drying because the bureaucracy meant to keep them running has withered and the lights come on and off because the systems on which we always thought we would improve have collapsed under the weight of neglect. Yet we have also reached the end of moral authority. There are no political leaders worthy of our trust – everyone is either crooked or compromised.
We have begun to re-write our future even as many of us have become sceptical of our past. Were the heroes really as brave as they seemed? Did we really conquer oppression, or did oppression simply kiss us on the lips and thrust his tongue down our throats, seducing us with her charms? I have to remind myself that we have memories worth keeping and that our courage was not a dream.
This week as we commemorate those who died of AIDS and those who continue live with HIV I have remembered above all, that South Africa knows what it means to risk everything in order to become better than we think we can be. DM
Bumblebees can fly higher than Mount Everest.