At least as many people have died of AIDS as perished in the Black Death of the 14th century. The UN agency UNAIDS estimates that there are more than 42 million people worldwide living with HIV or AIDS. However, in the affluent West, AIDS has become a manageable condition, controlled by anti-retroviral medication. The situation in Africa is starkly different.
There, AIDS is a catastrophe to rival any in its history of slavery, colonialization and exploitation. Up to 30 million Africans have HIV or AIDS and, without adequate healthcare, most of them will die horrible and lingering deaths.
Personal stories reveal so much more than statistics, which is why Edwin Cameron’s story, which he tells with unflinching honesty in Witness to AIDS is vitally important. A High Court judge in post-apartheid South Africa, he became the first – indeed, so far, the only – holder of high office to disclose that he has AIDS. Realizing that it was only his relative affluence that allowed him to purchase the vital but hugely expensive drugs that kept him well, Cameron became a campaigner to make anti-retroviral drugs available to all who needed them.
Mixing autobiography with an account of the faultlines of sex and race that AIDS opens up, Cameron rightly excoriates not only the pharmaceutical firms making obscene profits from patented drugs but also the AIDS ‘deniers’ – among them South African President Thabo Mbeki, regrettably – whose arguments contribute to the stigma and shame surrounding the disease.
The AIDS pandemic in Africa is nothing less than a worldwide disaster and a worldwide responsibility. Edwin Cameron’s brave, wonderful book is a call for humanity to meet that challenge, defeat the immoral notion that people can die in their millions simply because they are poor, and embark on what he calls, ‘the most extensive humanitarian venture in human history’.Peter Whittaker