Remembering Nelson Mandela as a Public Health Hero

Kate Klein, MPH,M.A

As we mourn yesterday’s passing of Nelson Mandela, it is an important time to reflect on his great life and the countless people his work impacted. Though many of us know Mandela mainly for his fight against the inhuman apartheid regime and, after 27 years on Robben Island, his work to rebuild South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’ it is today. Maybe less well known is Mandela as a hero for public health.


As the president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela believed that access to healthcare was as important as any other human right. In the late twentieth century, as HIV/AIDS was spreading out of control in Africa, Mandela urged South Africa to take action.  In 1992, he gave a speech connecting the spread of HIV to poverty, overcrowding, the poor treatment of women and the migratory labor system.  He urged the use of condoms and discouraged stigmatizing words of actions against people living with HIV.  Though Mandela regretted not doing more while in office, the reality is that he was operating in a very difficult political environment with AIDS denialism rampant and anger towards the Western world for the prohibitively high price of life-saving antiretroviral drugs. In 2000, though he’d left office, Mandela stepped in to dramatically end the controversy and move the country towards collective action.  At the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, he demanded a move away from the disputes that were distracting attention “from the real life-and-death issues we are confronted with as a country, a region, a continent and a world”. That dispute must not go on, he argued. South Africa should be utilizing all of the available resources possible to curb the spread of HIV.

His speech was a game changer for South Africa. It rallied for action and dis-empowered the administration’s doubts about the existence of HIV. In 2002, Mandela visited the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and international humanitarian organization Medicines Sans Frontières (MSF) in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town where MSF helped roll out the first HIV treatment available at a primary health care clinic in South Africa. Showing his support for the cause, Mandela donned a t-shirt that said “HIV Positive” as a show of solidarity. His support for the fight against HIV became personal when in 2005, his last remaining son, Makgatho, died of HIV. Mandela personally announced that the death was from HIV in a time when many other politicians would have lied about the cause.

Mandela, up until he became ill later in life, continued to advocate for access to HIV care. His legacy as a champion for public health will live on with the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, given every year by the Kaiser Family Foundation. There is little doubt about the huge impact Nelson Mandela had on the world in so many ways – but it is important to highlight his impact on the health of South Africa. The world has lost a true hero of public health.


Cover Photo (Eric Miller/MSF)

About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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