Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
I arrived in Cape Town early last Friday morning, oblivious to the global news story that had broken while I was sleeping in mid-air. As a friend and I were weaving our way through the airport following our taxi driver to the car, I caught a glimpse of someone carrying a folded newspaper and all I could see were the dates 1918 - 2013.
Flying to South Africa and attending the 17th international conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), Nelson Mandela was already on my mind, particularly his bravery in breaking the silence of his country regarding HIV by publicly announcing that his son, Makgatho Mandela, had died of AIDS on January 6, 2005.
I immediately turned to the taxi driver and said, ‘Please do not tell me Mandela is dead?’ He confirmed that Mandela had passed away and that an announcement had been made the previous night by President Zuma, the current leader of South Africa. He went on to say that even President Barack Obama had already made an emotional statement in response President Mandela’s passing.
My heart just sank and I felt overcome with melancholy about the passing of Africa’s most iconic and loved statesman. I knew that the conference I was going to attend was going to take a very different tone to one it would have taken had Nelson Mandela not died. I could almost feel the whole world reverberating with this really sad news.
In the taxi from the airport, I asked the taxi driver about the mood of the people of South Africa. He said, understandably, that there were a lot of mixed emotions, although relief was the overriding sentiment - relief that Mandela is no longer suffering, and relief that he can now rest in peace.
All of the gold, green and black flags along the road from the airport to the city centre were flying at half-mast - flags with words like ‘leader’, Utata and Father emblazoned on them, and there were a few brightly coloured murals of Mandela’s face on several buildings along the ocean road to Cape Town. For a person who had just passed away just a few hours before, South Africa seemed overly prepared for his demise. It seemed very much like there had been a sense of inevitability about Mandela’s death. I heard some people say that a few stories about his rapidly deteriorating health had already started to unfold, even before the statement about his death was made. This was reflected in the mood of the people in Cape Town. On the streets, nobody was wailing, but people were very quiet and looked thoughtful as they went about their day. Many people were talking about the best things they remembered about Mandela, mirroring what was happening on radio and with print media.
We talked about our many memories of Mandela in the taxi as we headed to downtown Cape Town, and I too shared my very own Mandela moment – when I got the chance to meet and shake his hand in 2000, on the last day of the International AIDS conference in Durban over 13 years ago.
Waiting for the elevator in my hotel I met Charlene Hunter-Gault of CNN Africa. When we reached the ground floor there were two security guys moving people away from the elevator doors. We stayed inside, afraid to get out and wondering what was going on. Then suddenly, a tall figure carrying a walking stick, with a familiar-sounding voice and smile appeared around the corner –to our surprise it was Nelson Mandela in the flesh. I could not believe what I was witnessing. With my eyes and my mouth wide open, I completely froze.
Mr Mandela walked straight towards us and said, ‘Hi Charlene, nice to see you, and who is your friend?’ I introduced myself and shook his hand but almost in a flash, we were gently moved on. I could not believe what had just happened. I didn’t want anybody to touch my hand. Sometimes I just can’t believe my luck either! Talk about being in the right place at the right time…
On the evening of December 7 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), preparations were being finalised for the AIDS conference. Photographs of Mandela were played on a loop on wide screens in many of the conference rooms, and the event opened with a minute of silence for Madiba, as he is affectionately known by South Africans. Most of the speakers paid their own tributes to Mandela and spoke passionately about doing more HIV prevention, focussing on the most at risk populations, addressing gender-based and sexual violence, as well as working to address the sexual reproductive rights of young people.
On stage advocating for the rights of people living with HIV, as well as those of sexual minorities, was a young man from Cote D’Ivoire by the name of Cyriaue Ako. He spoke eloquently about the injustices marginalised groups like homosexual men face in many countries in Africa, but he also talked about the freedom many of these men were already feeling simply by being able to be themselves at the conference. He talked about letting everyone live in dignity, no matter who they are.
At that moment, I felt like the ICASA conference had come of age, and Madiba would have been very proud.