Hutch in South Africa

'Rest in peace, Tata': South Africa mourns Nelson Mandela's death

Mandela, the country's first black president, was vocal about the clarity of science that unequivocally connected HIV with AIDS

Image: Glenda Gray with Nelson Mandela

In 2002, Glenda Gray, co-principal investigator of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, was a recipient of the Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award. Cover photo: Left to right: Dr. Carolyn Williamson, Dr. Glenda Gray, Dr. Atom Dilraj, Dr. Nelson Mandela, CAB member Winnie Serobe, Dr. Tim Tucker, and Dr. Andrew Robinson.

Photos courtesy Glenda Gray

Today the flags in South Africa fly at half-mast as we mourn the passing of the father of our nation. Nelson Mandela passed away last night at the age of 95, one of the icons of modern history, our own South African who became the face of freedom, not only for us, but for all the oppressed, the eternal symbol of freedom.

Mandela, you stood for many things, you stood against the domination of one race over the other, something you were jailed for and something you were prepared to die for. You also stood for the freedom of science, and in the height of AIDS denialism, you were vocal about the clarity of science that unequivocally connected HIV with AIDS. You spoke out about providing antiretroviral therapy to HIV infected pregnant women to prevent pediatric HIV, and in a bold statement in 2002, gave James McIntyre and me the Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award, at a time when our government had refused to roll out Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission.

You were also interested in HIV vaccine science, and requested our presence at your home, on the eve of rolling out the first HIV vaccine trial in South Africa, inspiring us to commit our best scientists to this endeavour.

I met you a few times in the last decade, the last time, most movingly, in a science class room at my children’s school where only a handful of parents accumulated to discuss an HIV policy for the school. You arrived, as a grandparent, and showed your solidarity and deep understanding of the stigma that follows families affected by HIV during their schooling and once again demonstrated that although you walked with kings, you had deep compassion for the common man.

Professors Linda-Gail Bekker and Gavin Churchyard, two accomplished and internationally recognized scientists who work with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) in the pursuit of an HIV vaccine for South Africa also had the opportunity to interact with the great man. Linda-Gail, the HVTN Clinical Research Site (CRS) leader in Cape Town, on hearing of Madiba’s passing, emailed her staff and wrote: “May you all be comforted at this time, knowing that he lived a great life, was loved by all and will be remembered forever. How honoured we have been to have lived in his era. Our lives and our country shaped by his sacrifice and wisdom. May we redouble our efforts - he stood for all we believe in-  the best we can do for his memory is to bring his dreams of 'a better life for all' to reality. God bless you all at this sad time.” She could not have said it better.

Linda-Gail also reminded me of one of his quotes: “We need bold initiatives to prevent new infections among young people, and large-scale actions to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and at the same time we need to continue the international effort for appropriate vaccines.”

Gavin Churchyard, the leader of the HVTN CRS at the Klerksdorp site, deeply saddened by the passing of our great man, said: “Nelson Mandela, an icon for justice and civil rights, enthusiastically advocated for HIV and TB treatment and care for those living in resource poor countries. Madiba’s principled leadership will continue to be an inspiration for us down the ages.” Gavin’s pursuit to alleviate the burden of TB in South Africa touched the heart of Mandela, who had suffered from TB in prison.

Dr. Fatima Laher, an Early Stage Investigator and leader of the HVTN CRS in Soweto, related that Nelson Mandela had said to us: “Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom.” She added, “We hope that by pursuing the dream of an HIV vaccine, we will live up to his expectation”.

We salute you and say goodbye Tata, rest in peace.

Glenda Gray is the co-principal investigator of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.