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Address by Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane at an Interfaith Service on World AIDS Day

Posted on: December 2, 2003 2:25 PM
Related Categories: Southern Africa

[ACNS source: Church of the Province of Southern Africa] Greetings to you all and thank you for setting aside this time to meet together on World AIDS Day. To stand together as we honour those living with and dying from AIDS and to express our ongoing concern about the present situation.

Last Tuesday, November 25th , UNAIDS released its update on the global state of HIV and AIDS. The report is chilling. It shows that the global epidemic is showing no signs of abating: 5 million new infections worldwide, an estimated 40 million plus HIV positive worldwide, 3 million deaths in 2003 alone. One in five southern Africans is HIV positive. In South Africa, the number of infections has increased by half a million over last year making for some 4,3 million people living with HIV.

These figures are daunting, indeed chilling. The human cost, the social and economic impact on nations such as ours is almost impossible to imagine. The epidemic is particularly devastating, says the report, on women who are more likely to be infected than men and on young women in the 15-24 age group, who have an infection rate two and a half times higher than similarly aged young men.

The report goes on to note that, despite improved political action and increased spending, improvements are still far too small and slow in coming. In short, what we are doing is still inadequate.

Increasingly, there is an acknowledgement that the epidemic can not be dealt with only as a health problem. Dr Peter Piot, UNAIDS Executive Director, commented in March this year:

"The goal of realizing human rights is fundamental to the global fight against AIDS. And in a world facing a terrible epidemic - one that has already spread further, faster and to more devastating effect than any other in human history - winning the fight against AIDS is a precondition for achieving rights worth enjoying".

The issue of stigma is directly related to the issue of human rights. Stigma discriminates, denying as it does: the protection of the dignity of people living with AIDS; freedom of expression to openly and frankly acknowledge their status which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for others to want to know their own status and freedom of movement which in turn impedes access to education and work.

Stigma is about not acknowledging or respecting the human dignity of each and every person. It violates the fundamental human rights of people living with AIDS in a multitude of ways and consequently against society itself. An injury to one is indeed an injury to all!

As we work as faith-based communities with others to bring all our resources to bear in this new struggle, we must recognize the need to add our weight to ensure that basic human rights of people living with AIDS are safeguarded. We are not here only to pick up the pieces of sick people's humanity or to bury the dead and look after the countless orphans left behind, critical as these interventions are.

We are compelled by the great imperative 'to do unto others as we would have them do unto us'. This is fundamentally about the equal human dignity we all share and the common human rights that flow out of this. Respect, protection and the fulfillment of human rights is as central to all the world's great faiths as it is to the AIDS agenda. Equally therefore, we must ensure that HIV and AIDS is central to the global human rights as well all our faith's agenda.

I find it almost impossible to read the Christian Gospel without hearing a powerful message speak through it into this pandemic. It is essentially a message which encourages us to live our lives in hope, to work unceasingly for a better world in the here and now, to realize God's kingdom on earth as in heaven. Because of this, I am encouraged not to give into despair as I take cognisance of the UNAIDS report.

For that hope to be realised in the fight against AIDS, we must remain vigilant and steadfast, increasing our efforts. We must, in the face of the moralistic denouncing of people living with AIDS, refuse to deny who they are as human beings with equal rights. We must not, as former President Mandela reminds us, see them as overpowering numbers.

People living with AIDS are at risk of being swallowed up in the anonymity of numbers. They are also at great risk of being seen as a burden on societies, on the economies of already struggling nations. This further adds to their stigmatisation and forces them out to the fringes of family, community and national life. There are still people who see them as 'deserving' of their lot, as having brought this situation on themselves.

Even in the Church, there are those who shirk their duty to be compassionate and hide behind a wall of morality and judgmental attitudes. But we are not God. Our job is not to judge, lest we ourselves be judged for playing God! If we are to be like God, then we must learn to love like God and to show this love in works of mercy and compassion. We must learn to celebrate life and seek the best possible life for all and especially the oppressed and poor, the sick, the widowed and the orphaned. We must learn to see the human face of this disease.

One of the great miracles that is to be found among people living with AIDS, is their discovery of the deep value of life. There are many such people who refuse to lay down in defeat or accept the label of 'victim'. They know themselves to be as deserving of life and human rights as everyone else. Experiencing life's fragility and knowing anew its value, they have learnt to value and celebrate this precious gift in all its fullness. Being HIV-positive does not exclude them from loving relationships, from raising their children or from playing their role as full and responsible citizens.

It is so very critical that we raise the bar of our own contribution to include human rights. We can do this by: creating awareness of the social, theological and technical issues of HIV and AIDS that contribute to stigmatization through discussions throughout our churches, sermons and workshops with our communities; participating in advocacy programmes and adding our contribution to the shaping of government policies on HIV and AIDS; involving more people living with AIDS in progamme planning, implementation and management; promoting and upholding especially the rights of women, youth and children; networking with civil society organizations on human rights issues; and creating workplace policies in all our places of work which ensure the rights of all workers who are HIV positive.

One of the great teacher's of the Christian faith many centuries ago spoke of 'the fantastic sob of recognition' that is evoked when a person recognizes the divinity that is present in all humanity. If we are to see the transfiguration of this pandemic from the global picture painted by the UNAIDS report to one in which the tide is turned, then we must begin with recognising 'with a fantastic sob' that in all people living with AIDS, we have a common and shared humanity and destiny given to us by our Creator. Their loss is ours. Sharing in the battle for human rights for people living with AIDS holds the promise of a shared victory and a dawn of a world free from AIDS.

Madiba's concert on Saturday night put the spotlight on this country. That light must now spread into our hearts and minds, casting out all the dark shadows of ignorance and denial. It must enlighten the way ahead so that we may move forward with greater urgency and speed in rolling out the long awaited national treatment campaign.

My call today is that we make this issue a voting issue. Unless a political party produces a clear commitment - including business plans and time frames - to fighting the disease and extending the lives of those who live with it, it is not deserving of our votes in the 2004 General Election. More particularly, political parties who want to be viewed by the electorate as serious contenders, must address the catastrophe of AIDS orphans. They must put forward a clear policy plan with a clear timeline on how to deal with these forsaken children. Each and every child in this country has the right to a secure home, plenty to eat, education and a secure future. I say again that this must be a voting issue. This nation demands a deep and lasting commitment to eradicate this pandemic from those who aspire to lead it!

Finally, let this World AIDS Day mark the turning point in our land from darkness to light and herald the dawn of a new age of compassion and commitment. Let it be the beginning of a generation free from HIV and AIDS.