South Africa's three Nobel Peace Prize winners—Nelson Mandela, F.W De Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—have launched a prayer for HIV/AIDS campaign, calling for an end to the silence and stigmatization surrounding the disease.

The opening prayer service at St Mary's Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg on December 6 represented the strongest commitment yet by prominent personalities to address AIDS in South Africa, where 4.2 million people (10 percent of the population) are estimated to be infected with HIV.

Eighty-two-year-old Mandela, who was helped up the pulpit steps, said South Africa lagged behind other African countries in coming to terms with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). He called on South Africans to draw inspiration from the late Diana, Princess of Wales, urging them to follow her example, to "hold hands, embrace, give love because the spirit of life is sometimes more important than medicine."

Wearing an AIDS pin in the center of his trademark bright shirt, the former South African president called on South Africans to draw on the "human capacity our culture blessed us with" in the struggle against apartheid and use it to vanquish AIDS, "which is killing more people than the wars of the past and the famines put together'."

In its latest figures, released on December 1—World AIDS Day—the United Nations estimated that 25.3 million Africans were living with HIV or had developed AIDS-related illnesses. The International Labor Organization estimated that five countries, including South Africa, could expect to lose up to a quarter of their workforce to AIDS by 2020.

South Africa's churches have generally been slow to respond to the pandemic, partly out of awkwardness in talking about sex, but also because the Aids debate became politically charged last year after President Thabo Mbeki questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS. In September, Njongonkulu Ndungane, Desmond Tutu's successor as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, helped change the mood of the country by having an HIV test. He urged all bishops to do the same to demonstrate that it was not shameful to have a test and that the result was confidential.

At the St. Mary's prayer service, an initiative of South Africa's biggest-selling newspaper, the Sowetan, Archbishop Tutu called on Christians to be compassionate and caring towards people with AIDS because "they are the tabernacles of the Holy Spirit, and if you want to meet God, you will meet him there."

F.W. De Klerk—the president who relinquished power to Nelson Mandela in 1994—compared the virus to an army massing at South Africa's borders. "We spend tens of billions of rands to defend ourselves against some possible future military threat. Should we not be spending as much money to combat an actual enemy that is already within our gates?'

"Although the seed of AIDS is HIV, it thrives in conditions of poverty," he said.

In an echo of a familiar African National Congress slogan, De Klerk added: "We must continue the battle to create a better life for all our people."

Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

Read Christianity Today's February cover story about how AIDS is ravaging other parts of Africa, "Have We Become Too Busy With Death?"

Previous Christianity Today coverage of South Africa includes:

Suffering From "Post-Apartheid Fatigue" | Churches told they are not doing enough to reconcile South Africa. (August 18, 2000)

Insisting He's Innocent, Anti Apartheid Activist Begins Jail Term | Allan Boesak sentenced for theft and fraud from anti-apartheid foundation funds. (Jan. 20 ,2000)
'Help Us Develop Our Souls,' Mandela Tells World Religious Leaders | South Africans need spiritual input. (Dec. 8, 1999)
Goodbye Dalai | China pressures South Africa's president to refuse meeting with the Dalai Lama. (Dec.2, 1999)
Truth and Consequences in South Africa | A PBS documentary asks what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission achieved. (April 5, 1999)