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 … Next Page »

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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