In his 86 years, Nelson Mandela has been tortured, imprisoned and led his country through one of the most dramatic transitions in modern history: the dismantling of apartheid. Through it all, his stoicism rarely faltered. But on Jan. 6 he faced his beloved South Africa with tears in his eyes to announce that his only surviving son, Makgatho, 54, had passed away in a Johannesburg clinic. “My son,” he told reporters outside his Johannesburg home, “died of AIDS.”
In a country where AIDS is a taboo subject, those were revolutionary words. While more than 5 million South Africans are estimated to be infected with HIV, shame has kept the disease largely in the shadows. “In South Africa, it’s not uncommon for people with AIDS to be ostracized,” says Kate Carr, president of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. “There’s no question this will help diminish the stigma.” AIDS activists also hope it will encourage more South Africans to seek treatment.
But any change in attitudes will come too late to help Makgatho. The son of Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Mase, the attorney suffered strained relations with his father for decades. “It’s not easy to write a person who hardly ever replies,” the elder Mandela once said in a letter to his son, who seldom visited him while he was imprisoned. The two men recently grew closer, as Mandela began to speak out about the AIDS epidemic. Makgatho’s wife, Zondi, died of pneumonia in 2003, fanning AIDS rumors, and friends say Mandela long knew his son had the disease. Says a colleague: “He just didn’t discuss it openly.” Until now. As Mandela declared emotionally from the garden at his home, “We must not hide.”