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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 23:38 GMT 00:38 UK
The interview: Edwin Cameron
Supreme Court judge Edwin Cameron, 52, is the only person in public office in South Africa to acknowledge having HIV/Aids. Here, he talks about going public, the political denial surrounding HIV/Aids and the drugs keeping him alive.

Edwin Cameron (Pic: City of Johannesburg)
Edwin Cameron said he had a wonderful response after revealing his HIV status
Q: You are still the only prominent public figure in South Africa to have announced having HIV/Aids. Why is that?

It's an epidemic that affects so many tens of millions of Africans but it's an epidemic of silence.

We are still waiting for a cabinet minister in Africa, for a public figure or even for a soccer star or a singer - we have people with tremendous public following in Africa to come forward and say: "I am now living with HIV and this is how I'm dealing with it".

Q: Why are people reluctant? What has been your experience?

I was a gay man who came to terms with being a homosexual about 20 years ago. And not long after I came out.

I was infected with HIV. I experienced the diagnosis not only as a terrible shock because it was without my consent or knowledge but I also had this tremendous feeling of shame, a sense of contamination, of defilement.

I thought the shame about my HIV diagnosis was because I'd got it as a gay man, and I was wrong.

At that very time in Africa, we began to realise - it had been evident for the past few years - this was going to be a mass heterosexual epidemic.

Q: You had to separate the stigma of being a gay man in a country like South Africa from the HIV/Aids stigma?

A poor black woman... went onto the radio and she spoke about having HIV - three weeks later, she was killed
You're quite right. And I've discovered from dealing with many people over the last 20 years, that heterosexual black women, so different from myself in so many dramatic material ways of life, have experienced the exact same sense of being defiled and contaminated, of unworthiness, when they discover they've got HIV.

Q: How do people consider you?

I was known as someone who had an expertise in Aids as a human rights lawyer... so I had a stature within the epidemic as a policymaker.

But at the same time I was living this dread secret. I decided to speak out because I'd fallen ill with Aids, it had caught up with me after 12 years. I thought I couldn't live this double-life much longer.

And then there was a trigger at the end of 1998 when a poor black woman living in a township in Durban went onto the radio and she spoke about having HIV. And three weeks later, she was killed.

I thought if [this woman], without any protection, living in a township, not behind a palisade like I do in my middle-class suburb in Johannesburg, not with the income of a judge, not with the constitutional protection... I thought that I should speak out...

Q: The trappings of your life have protected you from the kind of rage that someone felt against her for declaring her Aids status.

TAC head Zackie Achmat (l) shouts at Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (r)
Aids campaigners are angry with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (r)
I was greeted with this absolute flood of loving approbation from all over Africa. I got letters from all over the world. It was on the main television news and the newspapers. I got back to an office filled with flowers. It was a wonderful response.

For someone in my position, there is a great deal of approval for speaking out but people in ordinary jobs, people in ordinary communities are still speaking about a great deal of stigma and discrimination.

Q: You originally considered yourself to be heterosexual. When did you realise you were homosexual?

For most people in Africa, homosexuality is a very difficult thing to confront. In South Africa, when I was an adolescent, I knew that I was gay but I suppressed it. I never ever thought I would speak about being gay or ever act it out.

But I had a failed marriage and the unhappiness it inflicted on my partner and myself made me realise that I had to come to terms with this... even though gays and lesbians were being persecuted.

Q: Describe the process of beginning to take the drugs that saved your life.

It was very dramatic. By the end of October 1997, I suddenly became very sick with a lung infection... I had lost an enormous amount of weight, my immune system had stopped functioning and the virus was raging throughout my body.

I knew that I had to contemplate this treatment... which was fantastically expensive... way out of the reach of most Africans with Aids or HIV.

Within 10 days of starting anti-retroviral medication, I knew that a physiological miracle was happening within me. I knew that the virus had come to a standstill. I felt my health, my energy, my appetite and my joy for life returning.

Q: You have made the issue of political denial about the HIV/Aids epidemic your campaign.

People were dying when the treatment was available because of cost and that was morally unacceptable. But there was a second front and that was the South African government that said: "We're not sure that this is a virus at all".

President [Thabo] Mbeki started a commission to look into the question whether Aids was caused by a virus at all.

And it led to a terrible period of stalling in our national life, which ended, blessedly, in August 2003 when the government announced it was going to give anti-retrovirals to people with Aids through the public health system.

What we want is a heartfelt, unified, emphatic, unconditional commitment from all our governmental leaders. We don't yet have that.

Q: Describe Nelson Mandela's contribution to the fight against Aids since he left politics.

It has been absolutely pivotal. In December 2001, former President Mandela made it absolutely plain he was going to speak in public about the fact that treatment was essential. His accession to the debate has been dramatic. It's made all the difference.

Listen to Carrie Gracie's interview with Edwin Cameron in full on the BBC World Service's The Interview programme.


SEE ALSO:
Big jump in S African HIV cases
11 Jul 05 |  Africa
SA holds second Aids conference
07 Jun 05 |  Africa
Aids 'kills one in three' in SA
18 May 05 |  Africa
Buying time to fight Aids
14 May 05 |  From Our Own Correspondent


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