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Walter Armstrong Walter Armstrong

Anti-Apartheid Novelist and AIDS Activist Nadine Gordimer Dies at 90

Besides taking on Apartheid, Gordimer was a vocal campaigner in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS in South Africa.

3 Substance

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who turned her nation’s many tragedies of, and final triumph over, apartheid into majestic fiction, died on Sunday at age 90.

During her long life at the center of one of the great political struggles of the 20th century, her artistic accomplishment was so powerful and influential that during the 1970s and 1980s some of her greatest novels were banned as a perceived threat to the security of the racist regime. In 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela, the leader of the banned African National Congress (ANC), was released from prison, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Gordimer was a longtime member of the ANC and played a small role in the group’s underground activities even as she traveled worldwide to speak out against apartheid. Neither her art not her activism waned after the fall of white supremacy in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency in 1994. As the AIDS epidemic overwhelmed Southern Africa in the late 1990s, she wrote widely of the region’s public health crisis in an attempt to raise awareness and resources for prevention and treatment. (Two New York Times op-eds from the pivotal year of 2000 are here and here.)

In 2000, South Africa had the world’s fast-growing rate of HIV infection and more people with HIV than any other nation. But the administration of President Thabo Mbeki, who had succeeded Mandela, refused to allow HIV drugs to be distributed to South Africans because of his extraordinary claim that AIDS was caused not by a viral infection but by the collapse of the immune system as a result of poverty and its associated health disasters. Mbeki called for increased investment by wealthy nations in the economic and social development of South Africa, calling the expensive Western pharmaceuticals poison. First AIDS activists and finally foreign leaders decried Mbeki’s “HIV denialism” and watched in growing disbelief as he remained intransigent, refusing to accept Big Pharma donations of free drugs and treatment-related funding from the West. He even denied pregnant women access to HIV drugs that would prevent mother-to-child infection.

With an increasing number of South Africans, led by women with HIV, protesting Mbkei as a murderer, the controversy became unmanageable for the president and he announced the he was taking an official vow of silence on the science of AIDS. In regards to this scandal, Gordimer did not distinguish herself as an outspoken advocate of South Africans with HIV. She refrained from publicly criticizing her old ANC comrade until 2004, when she began doing publicity for an anthology of stories by world-class writers that she edited with the aim that all proceeds go to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), South Africa’s leading AIDS activist group, which had spearheaded the grass-roots mobilization against Mbeki. “I cannot understand how someone with Thabo Mbeki’s high intelligence, someone who is so well read and obviously has thought about the origins and prognosis of AIDS, how he can turn away from it,” she said.

By then, Mbeki’s own cabinet had overturned the no-drugs policy, clearing the way for the delivery of HIV medication to begin a scale-up that critics say was intentionally hampered by government interference. It is estimated that some 330,000 South Africans with HIV died unnecessarily, and 35,000 babies were unnecessarily born infected, as a result of Mbeki’s HIV denialism.