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To fight stigma, Mandela reveals son died of AIDS

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Former South African President Nelson Mandela announced Thursday that his son, Makgatho Mandela, 54, had died that morning of illness related to AIDS, and he urged other families to speak openly about the toll of a disease that has ravaged South Africa but is still widely regarded as taboo.

Mandela, though 86 and increasingly frail, has mounted a highly public crusade against AIDS in the past several years. He called reporters to his suburban home to make the announcement just hours after Makgatho Mandela, an attorney and father of four, died at a nearby hospital.

"My son has died of AIDS," Mandela said, ending weeks of speculation that the younger Mandela had the disease. He compared his son's illness to his own struggles with tuberculosis and prostate cancer, and he asked all South Africans to treat AIDS as an "ordinary" disease rather than a curse for which "people will go to hell and not to heaven."

His only other son died in a car accident in 1969.

Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his battles to end apartheid, has acknowledged doing too little to combat AIDS during his presidency from 1994 to 1999. Since then, however, he has repeatedly urged testing and treatment, and also promised to be open if any member of his family died from AIDS.

"That is the only way of making an ordinary illness ordinary instead of following those who are not well informed," he said Thursday.

More than 5-million South Africans, or more than 20 percent of all adults, are infected with HIV _ the largest number of cases in the world _ and at least 1,000 a day die from AIDS, according to the United Nations. Like Mandela, other regional leaders have also become increasingly forthright about the need to combat AIDS despite cultural resistance to public discussions of it.

However, the country's current president, Thabo Mbeki, has done little to promote the issue and rarely talks about AIDS. He became embroiled in controversy several years ago for suggesting that factors other than HIV cause AIDS. After being re-elected in April, he mentioned the disease only in passing during his inaugural.

A spokesman for the Mandela family, Isaac Amuah, said in a phone interview that the immediate cause of Makgatho's death was complications from a gallbladder operation. But he said that AIDS was a contributing factor, and that Mandela was determined to portray the death as resulting from AIDS in order to demystify the disease.

Mandela's announcement was immediately applauded by AIDS activists and political leaders in a country where stigma about the disease runs deep. Shame and fear remain major barriers to treating AIDS, even where drugs that can reverse the damage are available, according to doctors and researchers.

African leaders have been increasingly outspoken in addressing AIDS and its toll on their own families. A one-time political rival of Mandela, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has spoken publicly about the deaths of two of his children from AIDS. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe revealed an AIDS death in his family. And Zambia's former president, Kenneth Kaunda, has spoken openly of the death of his son from an AIDS-related illness in 1986.

The government's slow response to the spread of HIV has raised widespread criticism among health experts. Until last year, the public health system did not provide antiretroviral drugs, which can reverse the deterioration caused by AIDS. Antiretroviral drugs are gradually becoming available, but most victims wait to seek treatment until they're too sick to benefit from them.

Makgatho, whose wife Zondi died of pneumonia in 2003, had been receiving antiretroviral treatment for more than a year, said Amuah, his brother-in-law. The medicine appeared to restore Makgatho to full health, but he deteriorated abruptly in the days after a gallbladder operation Nov. 30. Mandela, who learned of his son's diagnosis with AIDS last year, canceled several public events to be at his son's bedside in recent weeks.

Makgatho Mandela was one of two sons of Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn. The other son, Madiba Thembekile, died in a car crash in 1969 while his father was in prison, serving what would become 27 years for his role as a leader of the African National Congress. Mandela had four daughters as well, one of whom died as an infant.