Thousands of health experts, politicians, activists and researchers converge in Durban to discuss global HIV response.
It feels nonsensical to open my account at the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban to write about Charlize Theron. But here I am, sitting at my desk, looking at my notes from this landmark conference, and the Hollywood star’s speech is one of the highlights of the conference so far.
It was a memorable performance.
On Monday evening, 40-year-old Theron opened the AIDS conference with an address that brought delegates, researchers, policy-makers, doctors, scientists and activists to their feet.
— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) July 18, 2016
It’s not that Theron said anything that any of us had never heard before. It was not even about her delivery. It was instead the politics she espoused that left some of us a little surprised, others perhaps a little stunned.
Theron, one of South Africa’s most famous daughters, told the audience that there was no honour in South Africa hosting a second conference on AIDS. She pointed out that the fight against the pandemic should have been won by now.
Theron said that the reason AIDS had not been solved was because “we value some lives more than others”.
It is easy to mock the malleable conscience of celebrities who are used to front campaigns against war and disease. I mean, seriously, “a messenger for peace”. Come on. But there was no mistaking the potency of Theron’s words at the conference.
“We value men more than women, straight love more than gay love, white skin more than black skin, the rich, more than the poor and adults more than adolescents,” she said.
And she continued.
“I know this, because AIDS doesn’t discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for womens’ bodies, for gay bodies, for youth, or the poor. It doesn’t single out the vulnerable or
the oppressed, or the abused. We single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the abused. We ignore them, we let them suffer, and then, we let them die.”
— ProfTinyiko Maluleke (@ProfTinyiko) July 18, 2016
Her message was not necessarily directed to her immediate audience, the best minds in the world working to end HIV/AIDS, but rather to the millions of people beyond.
It was remarkable. She diffused blame and pinned responsibility.
“It’s the culture that condones rape and shames victims into silence. It’s the cycle of poverty and violence that traps girls into teen marriages and forces them to sell their bodies to provide for their bodies. It’s the racism that allows the white and the wealthy to exploit the black and the poor and then blame them for their own suffering,” she said of AIDS.
HIV may be a virus, but the epidemic has always been an expression of disenfranchisement.
For instance, Edwin Cameron, the South African Constitutional Court Judge, who is openly gay and living with HIV, has spoken ceaselessly about how he used to spend $400 a month when the majority of South Africans could not afford the life-saving anti-retroviral treatment. He described it as “buying life”.
It is little wonder that while so many gains have been made in the struggle to alleviate and contain HIV/Aids worldwide, it is still the most disenfranchised who are most at risk: young female adolescents who cannot negotiate sex, gay men, sex workers and transgender people.
The epidemic has always been borne of hate, judgement and discrimination masquerading as a mere health emergency.
“HIV is not just transmitted by sex. It is transmitted by sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia,” Theron said to rousing applause.
When Theron was done, I was left in a quandary.
We ask Hollywood stars to be peace ambassadors, to draw attention to refugees, human rights and women’s rights, because we hope their stardom will bring light and dollars to a cause. We all know it’s mostly an act or voyeurism. It is further proof of purely conceived white saviour complex.
Of course the participation of these stars rarely brings any real change. Because their participation is not designed to change the status quo. They are simply around to pander to news values that hold celebrity as a form of divinity.
But on Monday night, Charlize Theron urged us to consider it another way.
“Let’s ask ourselves why haven’t we beaten this epidemic, could it be because we don’t want to?” she asked.
In response, the room, filled with thousands of people, fell silent.
For more coverage on #AIDS2016, follow @azadessa