David, second from left, with researchers filming an HIV prevention program involving rural womenDavid, second from left, with researchers filming an HIV prevention program involving rural women

Five million South Africans are infected with HIV, up to 1,000 people die daily, and half a million are estimated to be in immediate need of scarce, life-saving anti-retroviral treatment. The country is dealing with an epidemic of a scale not grasped by a world still dazzled by the miraculous democratic transformation of 1994.

Yet there is also much hope.

I was born in South Africa, and began practicing Buddhism in Cape Town in 1989. Working as a journalist on a national newspaper in the late 1990s, I began to understand the epidemic. In 2001, I moved to London, but I could not forget those dying far away at home, their passing barely noted.

Poison Into Medicine

Inspired by the Buddhist principle of “transforming poison into medicine,” I conjectured that HIV/AIDS presents an unparalleled opportunity: that if the continent’s people turn squarely to face the pandemic, it could prove a massive catalyst for building what SGI President Ikeda has called the Century of Africa, a century of people whose courage, talent and humanity will surpass anything the world has yet seen.

For, like Buddhism, HIV also demands we discard the fear of death, to work for an uncertain life of which each day must be treasured. It demands that we acknowledge the myriad links between us and those who seem most socially distant. It seeks out unerringly the weak spots in a society to challenge prevailing and much preferred narratives.

Defeating HIV demands educated citizens who instantly challenge injustice without forgetting the humanity of the unjust.

Defeating HIV will require democracies that are flexible and responsive and value each single human life; it demands educated citizens who instantly challenge injustice without forgetting the humanity of the unjust; it demands voters and taxpayers who believe that national economies—which cannot create profits without people—should be servants and not masters.

In London in early 2003, these conjectures seemed unspeakably bold, but I created a website to publish them. Doing that connected me with a remarkable organization: the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and its chair Zackie Achmat, both nominated in 2004 for the Nobel Peace Prize. Zackie asked me to return to South Africa to work for TAC. I did, to become a researcher on a TAC-inspired HIV education TV series presented entirely by openly HIV-positive people.

Now I have met people who are proving every day the truths I hoped were true. Traveling the country, I constantly sensed, and sometimes glimpsed, unspeakable amounts of unacknowledged death. I have seen deadly ignorance and fear. Yet I have also encountered many ordinary people who fight for others with extraordinary courage. I have seen again and again the incredible transformative power of humanistic education.

I am currently writing a report for TAC on its education program, and have met TAC members who, despite often being ill themselves, despite having seen many about them die, battle with their apartheid-crippled educations till they master the arcana of virology, HIV pharmacology and political economy to a degree that staggers visiting international health experts.

Struggle for Human Rights

TAC activists wear bold “HIV Positive” T-shirts irrespective of personal status. Many who are infected courageously declare their status, despite living in communities which often despise the infected. TAC’s work with global activists has helped dramatically lower the cost of anti-retroviral medicines, and it led the long, desperate campaign for the struggling national treatment plan now under way. Most of all, it ceaselessly teaches people about their health and human rights.

related article A Human Exchange A Human Exchange by  María García Zambrano,  Spain Teaching large classes in high school, Maria Garcia Zambrano was inspired by the approach of Soka education and her Buddhist practice to treasure each student and believe in their potential. Imagine an army walking to a drumbeat into gunfire, men and women falling amidst their comrades. That is the TAC, for, despite the nature of its work, and its own Treatment Project, activists die every month—literally hundreds every year. Yet TAC still sings as it works: “There is a race I must run, there is a victory to be won; give me power, every hour, to be true.”

People usually consider that my work must be “very depressing.” Indeed, there have been times when I have been filled with anger and despair. But my experience is that taking and witnessing action, and the hope and understanding I gain from my Buddhist practice, together give me the strength to persist in my efforts.

[Courtesy January 2005 SGI Quarterly]

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