Mandela, Miracles & How To Make Poverty History
Mandela, Miracles And How To Finally Make Poverty History
By Annie Lennox
A FEW years ago I was invited to take part in the launch of the first 46664 concert in Capetown. Nelson Mandela had volunteered his old prison number to be used as a logo to represent his new charitable organisation, working to bring attention and awareness to the HIV/Aids crisis taking place in southern Africa.
One warm summer’s afteroon, 15 years before, Eurythmics had performed in front of a packed Wembley Stadium in London, where the Free Nelson Mandela concert was held in celebration of the great man’s birthday, to bring a unique focus of attention to the injustice of apartheid, in the form of a musical event. At that time he was still incarcerated on Robben Island, a prisoner with an uncertain fate. The ANC were labelled as a terrorist organisation by Margaret Thatcher’s British government, and the heinous system of apartheid was in force.
No-one could ever have imagined that he would one day be released, to take up the role of president in a free South Africa. Not only had he led his people to victory, but he had also successfully prevented his country from descending into the bloody chaos of civil war.
For me, Nelson Mandela represents everything that is exceptional, honourable and decent in a human being. After grinding years of extreme sacrifice and struggle, his vision, his dream, actually came true.
We can all learn something from his example. Radical change is possible. Miracles are achievable. Mandela’s story attests to that.
So there we were on Robben Island on the day before the concert, with the likes of Bono, Peter Gabriel, Beyoncé and Youssou N’Dour, sitting formally in the exercise yard of Mandela’s former prison block, alongside the great man himself, who had come to address an assemblage of the world’s media.
The image of that moment is indelibly engraved upon my memory, and will be there for the rest of my life. When Madiba speaks, the world sits up and listens. And we were paying solemn attention, as he told us that although South Africa had won the battle against apartheid, there was now another, even more terrible war raging across the continent, wiping out the lives of millions of men, women and children. The situation was (and is) a catastrophe which could only be described as “genocide”.
Usually the word genocide is used in the context of the Holocaust of the second world war, or the unspeakable atrocities which took place in Bosnia or Rwanda. I had not yet connected it with Aids. It seemed I had some learning to do.
Here are a few facts:
l The number of people living with HIV has topped 40 million for the first time.
l Almost five million people were infected with HIV in 2005, and three million died after developing Aids.
l In many parts of Africa, one in three people is infected with HIV.
l More than 2.3 million children under the age of 15 have HIV.
l Every day, more than 13,000 people contract HIV; 70% of them live in sub- Saharan Africa.
It’s very difficult to imagine or convey the full extent of the ravages of Aids. No statistic, newspaper article, media broadcast or charitable event can actually transmit the magnitude of devastation it causes. Days before I took part in Live8, I had been sent to Uganda by Comic Relief. There, I met a group of HIV-positive widows whose husbands had died of Aids, courageously struggling to survive against the odds, trying to raise their children singlehandedly, in the knowledge that time was running out for all of them. I witnessed young mothers breastfeeding their babies, knowing the virus would most likely be passed on through the breast milk, and the babies would be infected. Poverty gives them no choice. They cannot afford alternatives.
I met Dismuss, a young man in his early 30s, whose mother, father, and two brothers had already died of Aids. Now his last remaining brother was dying in a nearby hut, alongside his auntie. His wife had already died, leaving behind a young HIV-infected toddler. The woman who was tending them was HIV positive, as too was Dismuss. And the darkly disturbing fact is that these kinds of nightmare scenarios are not exceptional. They are commonplace.
Because it is mainly a sexually transmitted virus, HIV carries a heavy burden of stigma, which means that many people are afraid to disclose their status. Most bizarrely, in South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, have taken a denialist stance over the past 10 years, which has meant that millions of lives have been lost too soon. People have no access to antiretroviral treatment because it is either not affordable or not available. It would seem therefore that if you are too poor to pay for treatment, then you are too poor to live.
Ultimately, this is an issue of human rights. In the West, most of us have the privilege of democracy – flawed as it may be – as well as freedom of speech and access to facilities such as clean water, sanitation, education and healthcare . The things we take for granted are things that cannot even be dreamed of in the continent of Africa, where life expectancy is very often around 35 years of age, and dropping. With access to antiretroviral treatment, mothers would be able to survive long enough to bring their children up, preventing millions ending up as homeless Aids orphans .
Last July, the streets of Edinburgh echoed to the sound of half a million pairs of feet marching through the city centre. Scotland has always prided itself on its sense of social justice, and it was apt that the Scottish capital became the centrepoint of a global campaign aiming to Make Poverty History. I was proud and privileged to be given the opportunity to perform and address the crowd during the Live8 concert at Murrayfield, the night before the G8 summit in Gleneagles, but I believe that the G8’s progress on tackling poverty only happened because of the visible public outcry created by ordinary people like you.
Without your involvement and contribution, it’s most likely that issues such as debt cancellation and boosting aid would have been shelved. Having said that, there is still so much more to be done. The Make Poverty History campaign and the G8 summit were in some ways just the beginning of the struggle. Nelson Mandela maintained the faith that an apartheid-free South Africa was possible. He maintained this conviction despite years of despair, many setbacks and dis appointments. He continued the struggle and his vision became a reality. If the politicians keep their promise (and we must hold them to it), more children will attend school, more families will have clean water to drink, and people like Dismuss and his family will have access to the medication they so desperately need.
It is easy to despair at the depth of poverty and the size of the problem. It is easy to say that it is insurmountable, that our efforts will not make a difference, and are therefore pointless.
When you consider that half the world lives on less than two dollars a day, that 1.3 billion people have no access to clean water and that a woman dies during childbirth every minute, one reaction is to turn the other cheek and say: “That’s just the way it is.” The other reaction, the one I prefer, is to say: “This is not acceptable, I am going to do something about it.” And yes, at times there will be despair. There will be setbacks and disappointments. But if, like Mandela, we hold true to the task, we can achieve real and lasting progress.
The day after the concert at Murrayfield, we were all exposed to the horror of the London bombings. Media attention was swiftly diverted away from the euphoria of the moment as the direct effects of terrorism crash-landed on our consciousnesses.
Tragically, as well as the British, those events also had a negative impact upon millions of people living in third world countries. In spite of this, the events around the G8, including Live8 and the Make Poverty History march, seem to have made a positive impact on the people of Scotland. A survey carried out by Oxfam in January asked people whether, further to the events of last year, they wanted to do more to end poverty. One in three Scots said they did: the highest percentage in the UK.
Poverty will never be eradicated by one charitable event. Making Poverty History is a noble ideal, granted. But one thing is certain: we can absolutely make powerful positive changes. What is essential, therefore, is that the issues are kept on the table. That we follow through, and utilise every opportunity to lobby government – who are, after all, supposed to be the servants of the people – to let them know that we expect more. There is so much that we can do collectively. When it is garnered and focused, “people power” is awesome.
This is why I felt so honoured to be in Edinburgh last Tuesday night, to help kick off Oxfam’s “I’m In” campaign in the city centre. It’s very simple. All you need to do is text the word, “me”, then spell out your full name, and send that text message to 87099. Your name will then come up in laser lights across the Royal Scottish Academy building, and Oxfam will get back to you to explain how you can personally take part in this fantastic groundswell of activism towards social change and justice. Activism made easy, I’d say. It can turn us all from being couch potatoes into more enobled and empowered human beings. Are you in?