‘There’s a terrible tragedy that seems to have escaped a lot people with regard to South Africa post-apartheid, that the HIV/Aids pandemic is taking lives at a rate of a thousand people every day and the rate of infection is over a thousand [a day],” rock star Annie Lennox says when I catch up with her at the recent Art for Africa charity auction held at Sotheby’s in London.
‘The roll-out of antiretroviral treatment and the state of the health system is not matching up to the terrible need. It’s an emergency situation in actual fact,” she continues. There is palpable emotion in her voice and her Scots accent gets thicker.
Lennox is optimistic about the new government’s commitment towards HIV/ Aids. ‘There is a small window of opportunity, and a new health minister who is far more pragmatic,” she says. ‘Finally there might be a sensible response.” Lennox met [Minister of Health] Aaron Motsoaledi a few months ago to promote her own charity, Sing, which raises money for the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, and highlights the issues surrounding HIV in women and children.
Lennox worries about the shortfall in the health budget, and that the ANC government will not be able to meet the national strategic plan objectives for 2011, and how that will effect the Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission programme (PMTCT).
Her first visit to South Africa was in 2003, for the Nelson Mandela 4664 concert in Cape Town. The following day Mandela took the artists to Robben Island, and addressing the international press, he described the Aids pandemic as a genocide. ‘And it was at that point that I kind of really sat up,” Lennox recalls. ‘When Rwanda had this terrible genocide between Hutus and Tutsis, when we had this terrible thing in former Yugoslavia, you could see images of holocaust, genocide. With HIV you don’t see it.”
Lennox wants to help end the stigma of HIV/Aids. ‘I’m just very passionate about it, because I know that it is affecting women and children, and I’m a mother you see, so that’s what I’m like at home,” she says, sounding close to tears.
‘You know, the fact of the matter is that treatment is life saving. It is life saving for a mother, she can live and take care of her children, and it’s life saving for her children who are [HIV] positive.” Lennox feels that the message is not getting through quickly enough. ‘The news headlines are not running that, and every day people are dying.”
‘Listen,” Lennox, gently berates me, when I suggest that as a rock star some people might question her dedication, ‘I’ve been committed since 2003. And my commitment to this issue is in for the long haul.” She immediately apologises in case she sounded defensive. ‘No, no, no sorry, I didn’t mean to take it personally, not at all.” She smiles disarmingly.
‘People will say all kinds of things. At the end of the day, I’m doing what I’m doing and my commitment is 100%, so that’s why I’m here today,” referring to her support for the Sotheby’s auction. ‘And that’s why I continue to campaign for as long as I have done. This is only an opportunity to contribute. I’m always looking for ways to contribute. It’s as simple as that.”