Mandela breaks taboo over son's Aids death

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The Independent Online

Former South African President Nelson Mandela revealed yesterday that his son Makgatho had died of Aids, breaking a widely held African taboo which holds it shameful to openly admit deaths from the disease.

Mr Mandela, one of the most prominent Aids campaigners in Africa, said he believed the only way to fight the disease was to speak about it openly. A veil of secrecy had surrounded the reasons of the illness of Makgatho until his death early yesterday morning, after which Mr Mandela decided to go public.

The stance of Mr Mandela, 86, was immediately praised by many South Africans, who said that it would help in the fight against the deadly disease.

"His [Nelson Mandela's] courage shows his commitment to the fight against HIV/Aids in this country and his willingness to save many more lives currently affected by this pandemic," said the opposition Independent Democrats leader Patricia De Lille, who has taken a voluntary Aids test to encourage other South Africans to do so.

By announcing the cause of his son's death, he has followed the example of the Inkatha Freedom Party leader and former home affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi who went public last year about his own son's death from Aids.

Mr Mandela's 54-year-old son, Makgatho, a lawyer by profession, was admitted to the intensive care unit of Johannesburg's Linksfield Park Clinic last month and remained there.

"We have called you here today to announce that my son has died of Aids," said a grief-stricken and frail-looking Mr Mandela flanked by his third wife Graca Machel and several relatives in the garden of his Johannesburg home.

"Let us give publicity to HIV/Aids and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV," said Mr Mandela. The taboo that keeps many Africans from openly speaking about the disease has hampered efforts to address the pandemic on a continent in which more than 25 million are infected.

But Mr Mandela also emphasised he had not been aware of the real reasons of Makgatho's illness when he began lobbying for more openness on Aids several years ago. "I hope that as time goes on, we realise it is important for us to talk openly about people who die of Aids," said Mr Mandela.

Makgatho Mandela's wife Zondi died of pneumonia last year and suspicions had lingered that he had Aids.

Mr Mandela has refused to be drawn into a controversy with his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, who denied knowing anyone suffering from Aids in a 2003 interview with the Washington Post. Mr Mbeki's spokesman, Parks Makahlana, who worked for Mr Mandela when he was president, died of Aids.

According to the United Nations body UNAids, five million of South Africa's 45 million people are infected with the virus and at least 600 South Africans die of the disease daily.

Mr Mbeki caused a storm in 2001 when he said the real cause of Aids was poverty not HIV. Mr Mandela refused to answer questions about his views on Mr Mbeki's position. Mr Mbeki's government has drawn criticism over its Aids policy and only court intervention made it begin rolling out anti-retroviral drugs, through public hospitals, after questioning their effectiveness.

Mr Mandela's stance is likely to add impetus to calls for the government, to take the disease more seriously.

The Inkatha Freedom Party yesterday welcomed Mr Mandela's decision. "We know it is not an easy decision to make and yet it is the right thing to do to help break the silence on the HIV/Aids pandemic and to remove the negative stigma which shrouds it," said the party's secretary-general Musa Zondi.

Mr Mandela had frequently visited his son in hospital and several sympathisers, including Mr Mbeki, came to his home yesterday to pay their respects.

Despite his father's popularity and his family's fame, Makgatho Mandela, who worked for one of the country's top law firms before resigning to work as a legal consultant for a commercial bank, kept a very low profile. In fact many did not even know Mr Mandela had a son still surviving.

His two daughters from his second marriage to Winnie Mandela, Zindzi and Zenani, took a more public profile, even accompanying their father on state visits during his early days as president after his marriage to Winnie broke down.

Makgatho was one of four children from Mr Mandela's first marriage to Evelyn Mase, who died in May at 82. A daughter died in 1948 before she was a year old, and another son was killed in a car crash in 1969 while Mr Mandela was in prison.

Mr Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail, was refused permission to attend his children's funerals. Makgatho will be buried on 15 January at the family's home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province.