Edwin Cameron: Witness to AIDS

The story of "... the man who wrote sexual orientation into South Africa's Constitution."

Wiki Commons.

Edwin Cameron, the first openly gay judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court (the equivalent of the US Supreme Court; try that on the US court) is in New York City this month to receive a prize — The James Robert Brudner ’83 Memorial Prize worth $5,000 — from Yale University and give two lectures: one on LGBT Rights and a second on “Africa, AIDS, and Homophobia: The Other Epidemic.”  You may remember that Cameron is also HIV positive and was one of the first people to call out former President Thabo Mbeki on the latter’s disastrous AIDS policies. The organizers are billing Cameron as “… the man who wrote sexual orientation into South Africa’s Constitution.”

Cameron, by the way, was profiled by The New York Times at the start of this year. The Times quotes him telling a “stunned” Judicial Services Commission, the body that was deciding whether to recommend his elevation to a Constitutional Courtt Judge: “I am not dying of AIDS. I am living with AIDS.” The outcome of that statement was, as the Times, concluded: “On that day a decade ago, he became the first — and still remains the only — senior office holder anywhere in southern Africa, and perhaps in all of Africa, to announce he was infected with H.I.V.”

As for why he challenged Mbeki’s denialism, Cameron told the paper: “I suppose it was a sense of dismayed outrage that this man with so much intellectual promise, who held out such high ideals for the African continent, should betray it so profoundly on its major moral question.”

The Times interview also highlight his memoir, “Witness to AIDS” (Tafelberg Publishers, 2005). There, he writes about his privilege as a white man and a upper middle class person in having access to anti-retroviral drugs and why he is so outspoken about all South Africans having access to affordable, publicly available ARV’s : “Here I was, blessed with renewed vigor and life and health and energy and joy. “I mean, it’s an extraordinary experience. I think some cancer survivors also experience it. Here I had my life given back to me. How could I keep quiet?”

In June 2009, Cameroon did not have kind words to say about Nelson Mandela’s government and AIDS; that AIDS fell off his agenda. As he told PBS, Mandela appeared to give more time to the Spice Girls than to AIDS:

The first time he spoke about AIDS at all was in February 1997, nearly three years after he took office. And he didn’t even speak on AIDS when he was in South Africa. He spoke in Switzerland, at Davos!

I know this is more ungenerous than anyone, but I think the seductions of international adulation reached the human falability of this wonderful man; this man whose stature and moral fiber had meant that we survived the risk of racial Armageddon, civil war had given us so much but he didn’t give us his time and attention and voice and leadership on AIDS. …

I thought of saying so at the time, but respect for him and a certain deference to him made me bite my tongue. Now that it’s 10 years since he left office and we can look back, I don’t think it would have been an unfair thing to say. It sounded demeaning and bitter but it was factually correct.

And the emblematic significance of the Spice Girls — at the height of the time when we wanted him to do something about AIDS. The emblematic I think he was drawn by the seductions and flattering, delightful allures.

Yet, Mandela redeemed himself somewhat after he left office:

The most important thing he did was after his own presidency. He decided in 2001 that he was not going to be quiet about the etiology of AIDS and the importance of treatment. (Editor’s Note: The AIDS denialists, including President Mbeki, do not believe HIV causes AIDS and therefore do not believe treatment works.) The fact that he stepped out and talked about this was enormously important. Before the opening of Parliament in 2002, he made a speech in giving his Health and Human Rights Award, which spoke about the importance of preventing mother-to-child transmission. This was at the very time that the Mbeki government was being dragged to court by the Treatment Action Campaign because it was refusing -– on denialist grounds — to give PMTC [Prevention of Mother-To -Child transmission] to mothers with HIV. So his intervention on that was crucially important.

President Mandela’s most decisive acts on stigma were fantastic! He donned the HIV Positive T-shirt in July 2002, and when he spoke about his own son Matata Mandela, who died of AIDS. But those were later. And they were magnificent acts. … Now just imagine if he had done comparable things seven years earlier!

BTW, South Africa could have its second openly gay Judge on the Constitutional Court should High Court Judge Kathy Satchwell make it onto the Constitutional Court.

Further Reading

Dog day afternoon

The basic lesson from Halima Ouardiri’s short film, “Clebs,” about over 750 stray dogs living in a Moroccan sanctuary: We behave just like dogs.

The cover up

A Kenyan investigative journalist reflects on the capture of a genocidaire in Paris after 26 years on the run and its significance to the families of the victims left in his wake.