A pioneering judge and activist from South Africa says the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS continues in Africa, despite advances in treatment.
Justice Edwin Cameron is South Africa’s only openly gay and HIV positive judge. He went public and revealed his HIV status in 1999, and was an outspoken advocate for the provision of lifesaving medication when the South African government refused to provide it.
Justice Cameron is visiting Australia and he spoke earlier with our social affairs reporter, Sally Sara.
EDWIN CAMERON: I was a white man in a black continent where there were 30 million people, still are, with HIV who, unlike myself as a proudly gay man, were heterosexual. So, faces and appearances and representivity and role models matter, so I thought there’d be lots of black, heterosexual leaders – men and women – who would speak out like I’d done.
Fourteen years later I’m still the only person in a public position, holding public office in the entire continent of Africa who has spoken out about myself.
SALLY SARA: That’s extraordinary. What do you think about that?
EDWIN CAMERON: I think, Sally, that we don’t understand stigma properly. We understand externalised stigma, the enacted form of discrimination, ostracism, hatred, rejection, condemnation, judgement. What we don’t understand is internalised stigma.
The person with HIV or at risk of it becomes self-condemnatory. It’s very, very difficult to understand and to act upon. But I think the silence of our cabinet ministers, our national leaders, our presidents and prime ministers and kings – because there’s widespread belief that some monarchs in Africa, in Southern Africa are living with HIV, are not on antiretrovirals.
SALLY SARA: When you step back and have a look at our nation now, what did that time do for the maturity and the emergence of the nation? Was there lost time, lost people, lost opportunity?
EDWIN CAMERON: Undoubtedly. There’s a Harvard study that attributes to president Mbeki’s AIDS denialism over 300,000 death, very conservatively, because we should have had a nationally sponsored, publicly provided treatment program years before and he stymied it.
But, to the positive, I think that AIDS came with democracy. As we started our negotiations in 1990, the epidemic was seeping in and became a flood. By 1994, four years after the negotiations, as we became a democracy nearly 20 years ago, 5 per cent national prevalence. And five years later, amongst young sexually active adults, an almost 20 per cent prevalence. Terrifying.
And so a defining feature we grappled with it. And, of course, our new constitution was so pivotal, because when president Mbeki challenged the science of AIDS, the treatment action campaign, the street level activists, the township people and the unions and the churches took president Mbeki to court and won a court order saying that his policy on AIDS drugs was not reasonable, it was actually irrational.
When we were told Africans can’t take medications they haven’t got it, told by our own black health minister, when were told that medical infrastructure will collapse, when were told it was going to be too – we’ve done it. And to me, as a very proud African and South African it means that we can do a lot of other things that we don’t think we can do. And I think it’s a good portent for a great future for our country.
ASHLEY HALL: South African constitutional judge and HIV/AIDS activist, Justice Edwin Cameron, speaking with our social affairs reporter, Sally Sara.