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Bearing Witness

During his U.S. book tour for Witness to AIDS,Justice Edwin Cameron talks with Alina Oswald about coming out as positive, fighting AIDS denialism in South Africa, and countering the stigma of HIV with hope

AIDS is a disease. It is an infection, a syndrome, an illness, a disorder, a condition threatening to human life. It is an epidemic—a social crisis, an economic catastrophe, a political challenge, a human disaster,” Justice Edwin Cameron states, reading from his new book, Witness to AIDS, at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City this past October. 

Called “a beacon of inspiration” and “a fighter” by some members of the audience, Edwin Cameron is an internationally recognized human-rights and AIDS activist, and a Judge of Appeal on the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa. After living with HIV for several years, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1997. Two years later, Justice Cameron became the first public official to reveal his HIV-positive status in South Africa.

Born in 1953, in Pretoria, South Africa, Edwin Cameron studied at Stellenbosch University, Oxford, and the University of South Africa, winning top academic awards at all three universities. In 1983, he joined the Johannesburg Bar; in 1986, he started practicing as a human-rights lawyer at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of Witwatersrand. While at CALS, he codrafted the Charter of Rights on AIDS and HIV, cofounded the AIDS Consortium, and founded the AIDS Law Project, also serving as its first director (www.alp.org.za). A gay man, he also worked successfully to include sexual orientation protections in the South African Constitution. He became a High Court judge in 1995. Though he had become an AIDS expert over the years, Cameron did not disclose that he was positive until 1999; he believes he contracted HIV sometime in 1986.

“Witness to AIDS is a story of hope,” Cameron tells me when we get to talk, “because it recedes the stigma and the fear of this disease, because it shows people that AIDS is medically manageable. I’m living proof of it.”

Witness to AIDS stands as proof that miracles do happen—in this case, with a little help from HIV treatment and medication. It tells of the author’s own “Lazarus” story of miraculous recovery and documents his journey from the brink of death to the normality that living with HIV/AIDS allows. The read is bold, offering a lesson in life for those brave enough to confront their struggles.

Above all, Witness to AIDS documents accurate facts about AIDS in Africa and what Cameron calls “the most tragic part of how South Africa deals with AIDS”—the South African politics of AIDS and President Mbeki giving credence to South African dissident views regarding the origin of HIV. Cameron finds this beyond imagination.

In essence, “[dissidents] compare themselves to Galileo,” he explains. “But the truth is that Galileo did apply scientific methods [and] it was because of the application of scientific methods that Galileo proved himself right.” 

In Africa, AIDS is sometimes thought to be part of a white-borne racist agenda, propagated by stigmatizing conceptions of African sexuality and Africa as the “origin” of AIDS. Talking about AIDS is yet another way to insult Africa. “Now, why would it be insulting to say that a virus originated anywhere?” Justice Cameron concludes his brief explanation. Viruses originated in China, or in Spain, or in South America, but none of them are linked to shame, stigma, or gender injustices. These factors still influence the pandemic’s evolution in Africa where AIDS is not only a medical disease, but also a gender and social disease. 

Cameron believes that fighting poverty is central to the fight against AIDS. As he explains in Witness to AIDS, medical researcher and human-rights activist Jonathan Mann showed that poverty and subordination in society go together with the risk of AIDS. Mann believed that by remedying injustice and gender subordination, we remedy the struggle against AIDS. (Cameron gave the Jonathan Mann Memorial Lecture at 200o’s XIIIth International AIDS Conference in Durban.)

“Living with AIDS is almost like a second career,” Cameron says, explaining his own struggle with the virus. Coming out as positive has helped him refocus his energy on living. He calls it “an investment in the rest of [his] life.” But his action has not encouraged other prominent public figures to follow in his steps. The reason in part lies with the persisting stigma associated with an AIDS diagnosis.

Justice Cameron is the first to acknowledge that silence about the disease is the biggest problem in Africa. Denial also fuels stigma.

How can we fight stigma? Cameron points out that the real question is: How much of humanity has to perish for us to respond to AIDS? He emphasizes the importance of AIDS education: The more informed we are, the better we can defend ourselves. 

“We need to have acceptance of the facts,” he says, because AIDS reveals a lot about the structures of the world—North and South, rich and poor, placing developed and developing worlds in close proximity, perhaps too close for comfort. 

“AIDS beckons us to the fullness and power of our own humanity,” Justice Cameron writes at the end of Witness to AIDS. “It is not an invitation that we should avoid or refuse.”

Alina Oswald is a freelance writer and author

of Poetry of the Soul. Contact her by e-mail

 at alina.oswald@gmail.com.

December 2005

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