"AIDS in Africa - Fighting Western Apathy"
ACTSA Annual Conference
November 8, 2003
Why am I here?
All I know is that for my whole life I have been pulled towards the African Continent. I was born in America, live in London and my heart is in Africa. I have over the past couple of years visited Tanzania and Namibia and spent much time in Kenya and South Africa which are for mysterious and beautiful reasons establishing concrete roots in my present life. I became actively involved three years ago after hearing about a youth group from South Africa called the Buskaid Soweto String project. It was at that time that I was introduced to Artists For A New South Africa who were instrumental in helping me bring the group to Los Angeles to play a concert at UCLA and perform in community halls around South Central L.A.
But why them?
Something about them MOVED me. Something about their commitments and perseverance against ALL ODDS. Something about their joy and hopefulness expressed remarkably through their music which lit up the hearts of everyone in the room. Then in May 2002, I visited Soweto and the home of one of the students and saw firsthand the conditions in which he lived. And yet every day including weekends this young man would rise, attend school and practice his violin for hours and hours and hours. Today, because of international attention and support for the school, he is one of two Buskaid students who have come here to study music at the University in Manchester. And more will undoubtedly follow.
We can do a lot when we are MOVED. It motivates us to put names to the faces across the globe. It ignites our conscience. And this is what I really hope happens today, that individuals, you here, become MOVED by the individuals who are suffering in Africa - not just numbed by the statistics.
Which is another reason why I am here. Because after becoming involved with Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA) I have come to believe that AIDS is the single biggest challenge facing humanity today. Like you, I personally struggle to fully comprehend the impact of AIDS - 5 Africans die per minute? A third of the people of a country like Botswana are living with HIV...the life expectancy for the average Zambian is 33... as I said the statistics are numbing.
But don't shut down against these cold facts - it is essential that we stay awake to the appalling scale of the crisis and actively contribute to helping everyone we know in wrapping their minds around the seriousness of this pandemic. This is not just something that happens to someone else far far away. If it is not treated, if it is not eradicated it will eventually effect someone close to YOU. And is that the point at which we will be MOVED into action - when it becomes too late for US?
I am now a board member of ANSA and have supported their work to build on the freedoms achieved by ordinary South Africans. ANSA like ACTSA was born out of the global movement against apartheid and today continues its solidarity with free South Africa. In the post-apartheid South Africa, and indeed for all of Africa, the war on AIDS is undoubtedly the war to support.
ANSA has been campaigning with others around the world for our leaders to do more to enlist in this war. In close partnership with South African activists, NGOs, leaders and artists, ANSA strives to help make a difference through advocacy, grantmaking, public education, provision of medical supplies and increasing international awareness and support. We have recently joined hands with people like Willy Madisha here and Zackie Achmad and Mark Heyward from Treatment Action Campaign to launch ANSA's Amandla AIDS Fund. These funds will be given to effective South African non-profit organizations working on the frontlines to combat HIV/AIDS. Including the highly pre-active TAC. But the truth is my support for the fight against AIDS thus far has been minimal and my understanding of the complexity of the issues sketchy at best. Which brings me to the another reason why I am here.
Earlier this year I met Zackie for the first time in London and his life-threatening commitment to the cause touched me profoundly. Zackie briefly introduced me to Aditi and ACTSA and here I am, today, not as an expert, because there is so much I do not understand, but to become better educated about this pandemic and ultimately more actively involved. Simply by agreeing to speak today I have been propelled passionately and compassionately into a greater understanding of and commitment to the cause. I can tell you that I certainly have been MOVED by the honest to God seriousness of the challenge we ALL face today - which is to take action. And this is why ACTSA's new campaign to increase the pressure on our leaders is so vital.
Unprecedented challenges require unprecedented actions - and most importantly this requires YOU. Let's not buy the myth that Africa is a hopeless continent and let's defeat those who say the pandemic is too large to address. AIDS cannot be cured YET but AIDS can be prevented, AIDS victims can be given proper care and, most importantly, AIDS can be treated.
Artists like me can contribute in small ways by raising the profile of the issue. We can bring our talents - and use our faces - to draw greater public and media attention but you, as activists, can do so much too. You know how to mobilise on the streets; you know how to write letters to your MPs and you know how to bring big business to the table and who to lean on to get more European funds into the Global Fund. You can count on my support for your initiatives.
We cannot allow what Stephen Lewis calls "mass murder by complacency" to continue. Does it not infuriate you to see our world leaders make promise after promise but not take this global threat seriously? We MUST NOT follow in their footsteps in this way but show them how to move out of it. Move away from apathy into substantial, sustained action. How will we explain to the next generation that we watched an epidemic that claimed millions and all we did was attend conferences?
So today I ask you to look at some of the faces on these posters around the room - memorize them and be moved by their struggle. Some are people who are dying at the prime of their life - how long will we allow that to happen? Some are faces of sung and unsung heroes - fighting for justice. Will we not fight alongside? It is important to carry these memories with us after today and let our conscience move us into action.
Finally, today I pledge that over the next year I will continue to educate myself about what can be done to defeat AIDS in Africa and to speak out about the issue whenever I can - WHAT WILL YOU DO?
For more information and other keynote speeches, click here.
Transcript appears courtesy of the ACTSA.