How Nelson Mandela Inspired Me to Fight Infectious Disease

12/16/13

[Editor's Note: Alan Aderem is a former political activist from South Africa who now serves as the President of Seattle BioMed, a research institute that focuses on global infectious diseases.]

My first response to Nelson Mandela’s death was one of profound loss and sadness. This feeling was soon replaced by recognition of Mandela’s mammoth contributions to South Africa, and to society as a whole. As a South African who also was involved in the freedom struggle, I considered how Madiba, as he is affectionately known in South Africa, influenced my own life.

I was a child when Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. The apartheid government attempted to expunge his name… and it worked reasonably well. He was never mentioned. It was illegal to quote him; it was illegal to publish a photograph of him. The education system was not permitted to mention Mandela’s name, the African National Congress (ANC), his political party, or what the ANC stood for. Most of the white kids in the country had never heard of him. Nonetheless, he remained in the hearts and minds of the black majority. His name was whispered. In the black townships parents taught their children about him; for them he personified the struggle against apartheid.

As I grew up I became aware of the injustices of apartheid. My mother was a physician who worked in the black townships and I often accompanied her. I was exposed first hand to the harsh realities of life, to the economic disparities, to the lack of opportunity and to the devastating diseases. This triggered my political activities and my lifelong interest in global health. I became involved first in the student movement, later in the community and trade union movements. I co-founded a community newspaper and I served as its editor. I was recruited as an underground member of the ANC. I was arrested on numerous occasions and was banned and house arrested for five years in 1977 as I began work on my PhD in Biophysics. I went into exile in 1982 as my arrest for ANC activities became imminent. All the while Madiba served as an inspiration and as a symbol of the struggle to me.

As the struggle gained momentum in the 1980’s, the ANC emerged and took to the streets. Apartheid South Africa was on the verge of collapse. The regime knew that they had to make a deal with Mandela, as he was the only person with sufficient credibility and leadership to prevent a bloodbath and they wanted to release him from prison in an attempt to restore order. He refused to be released. His constant refrain was “I cannot be free if my people aren’t free”. Madiba insisted on the unbanning of the ANC and on the release of political prisoners, before his own release.

My wife Kathy and I were in Cape Town on the day Mandela was released. We joined the vast gathering on the Parade, a large square next to the Cape Town City Hall. Madiba came out onto the balcony and a massive ANC flag was unfurled. And there he was, his fist in the air. It was an astounding moment for me: a non-person, a flag that once could not be shown, and there they were on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall.

By this time I was a faculty member at the Rockefeller University in New York, working on infectious diseases and the immune system. Global infectious diseases were never far from my mind.

The first free election took place in 1994. The majority of South Africans were voting for the first time and they stood in line for hours to cast their vote. I was also voting for the first time in my life. I will never forget the feeling: the hope, the excitement.

The ANC won in a landslide. Madiba was President. The country was ecstatic. A constitution had to be written and laws had to be changed. A vast amount of work lay ahead. The economy had to be overhauled, the education and health care systems had to be transformed, and a science and technology infrastructure had to be established to drive innovation and economic development. I participated in this process by chairing a cabinet commission on the transformation of biomedical science.

Madiba took the unusual step of stepping down after one term as President. He did remain engaged, though. For example, when his successor Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV caused AIDS (this in a country with the highest infection rate in the world) he stepped in and made the case. Madiba approached the problem in a nuanced manner. A quote of his at the time illustrated this: “AIDS is no longer just a disease, it is a human rights issue”.

South Africa also has a very high prevalence of tuberculosis. Most of the TB is latent, which means people have been infected by TB bacteria but are not (yet) ill with disease. The collision between HIV and TB has resulted in a perfect storm. HIV weakens the immune system resulting in the transition from latent to active TB. As one might imagine, this has a great many consequences, both personally and socially. Madiba had a precise understanding of the impending devastation that could be caused by the intersection of HIV and TB. To quote, “We cannot win the battle against AIDS if we do not also fight TB.”

In fact, these infections are doing what apartheid could never achieve. They are destroying South Africa. Again, Madiba acted as an inspiration to me. In 2011 I moved from the Institute for Systems Biology to Seattle BioMed, where my scientific and political battle now is the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases that devastate resource poor countries. It is a tough assignment, but once again I will quote Madiba: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

Alan Aderem is the president of Seattle BioMedical Research Institute. Aderem has studied the interface between the innate and adaptive immune system for more than twenty-five years. Follow @

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