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Edwin Cameron: one of South Africa’s new heroes

Living as an openly gay man in socially conservative Africa is hard enough, but Edwin Cameron went further by disclosing his HIV+ status. 

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Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron was the first South African in a senior official position to disclose his HIV/AIDS status as positive. He has been living with the virus since 1986 and started anti-retroviral medication in 1997. He is an outspoken advocate of HIV/AIDS anti-retroviral treatment and made a compelling stand for it at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000, during a time of political complacency over the issue.

In 2005 Edwin published Witness to AIDS, a “part-memoir, part compelling analysis” of his struggle with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The book was on the bestseller list for seven weeks.

Nelson Mandela called him “one of South Africa’s new heroes”.

Cameron drafted the Charter of Rights on HIV/AIDS in 1992, co-founded the AIDS Consortium, a non-governmental organisation working in the field of HIV/AIDS that he chaired for three years, and was the first director of the AIDS Law Project.

Since 1998 he has chaired the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the patron of the Guild Cottage Children’s Home, the Ladybrand Hospice, Community AIDS Response (CARE), the Soweto HIV/AIDS Counsellors’ Alliance (SOHACA) and the Vuyani Dance Theatre. In 2000 he received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. In September 2002 the Bar of England and Wales honoured him with a special award at its annual conference in London for his “contribution to international jurisprudence and the protection of human rights”. He received the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Excellence in Leadership Award for 2003. In October 2003 he was elected an honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. He is still active in the fight against HIV/AIDS and uses his position as constitutional judge to comment in the media about HIV/AIDS in South Africa. In an interview with the Brisbane Times he said: “One would like HIV to become as drab as malaria or TB [tuberculosis], but it has not … the simple figures are still dismaying — near to half a million deaths per year.”

71o2y7tHZVLLiving as an openly gay man in socially conservative Africa is hard enough, but Edwin Cameron went further by disclosing his HIV+ status.  Here he reflects on that time:

“I disclosed for a combination of personal and political reasons. From a personal point of view, I think it is important that people with HIV or AIDS should be able to feel free… Firstly, to talk to those around one, and secondly, to anyone who has a genuine interest in your status or your well being, to be able to draw on support.

I’d known for a long time that at some time I would make a public declaration that I was living with AIDS. That became particularly urgent after I fell ill with symptoms of AIDS at the end of 1997. Then it became just a question of when it would happen. I hold public office as a judge in the high court, and now I’m an acting justice of the Constitutional Court, so there is some legitimate public interest in my state of health. The public has a right to know whether their public representatives, their government executives, and the judiciary are in a state of health to carry out their duties.

Until I fell ill with AIDS there was no question about my being unable to do my duties just because I had HIV. When I applied for a vacant position on the Constitutional Court, a senior colleague on the Constitutional Court suggested that it might be appropriate to disclose that I had AIDS. He had heard rumours about my state of health, and he suggested that it might be best simply to state that I have AIDS, that I was on medication and in excellent health. So a combination of the personal and political reasons compelled me to do it.

The broader social and political considerations were that Gugu Dlamini had been killed in a township in 1998. The reason she was killed was ignorance, prejudice, hatred and her own vulnerability. Women in our country, particularly women with HIV, are enormously vulnerable. By contrast, I have a secure job… in fact a job with constitutionally protected security. I’m surrounded by loving friends and colleagues and family. Many of them at that stage already knew I had HIV and supported me. I’m also able to afford the medication that is keeping me healthy.

So these three aspects are vital – literally vital, because in these three life-saving ways I am different from Gugu Dlamini. I felt that from my position of relative privilege and protection I should state my position. I had to take at least that limited stand because my privileges enabled me to do so.

Before my statement I felt enormously apprehensive. For one thing, I think the fact that one is living with a deadly virus in one’s blood is an intensely personal fact. To make a statement about something that could still claim your life, even if you are on medication, is a very exposing and precarious thing to do. So I felt very vulnerable.

There is a great deal of prejudice and stigma around and I feared that there would be a negative response to my statement. I chose to disclose at a very public forum where the nation’s media would be. It was at the public hearing at the judicial service commission, which was interviewing candidates for a vacancy on the Constitutional Court.

I was apprehensive, but deep within myself I knew that it was the right thing to do. I had scrutinised my own motives for doing it. I thought I was doing it for the right motives, so I went forward. My friends and my family really stood behind me. Two friends – Zackie Achmat and Morna Cornell – travelled to Cape Town to be with me. They sat right behind me during the proceedings. I felt very comforted. The response moved me beyond words. It was almost universally affirmative. I had a deluge of loving responses – letters, cards, faxes, e-mails, telephone calls, and flowers – from many, many hundreds of people.

The size of the response and the extent to which it was positive amazed and moved me. The news was carried on the front page of almost every national newspaper, and on the main national television news. I think that my statement struck a “right note” in the national life at the time. People had at last become concerned about HIV…Perhaps five or ten years too late, which is our nation’s tragedy, but the awareness had at last come. People were, I think, waiting for someone to come forward, someone with a public profile, and say ”Yes, I have AIDS,” and that was my role”.

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