A South African Constitutional Court judge and gay rights activist who openly disclosed his HIV status despite at a time it is highly stigmatised retired on Tuesday.
Edwin Cameron, 66, who hung up his gown after 25 years of serving as a judge, won widespread praise for spearheading the fight for people with HIV two decades ago when the infection rapidly spread under what he called the “AIDS denialism” of the then South African president Thabo Mbeki.
He revealed his status in 1999 more than a decade after he contracted the virus.
He stirred up the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban with a speech detailing his own infection and how he was fortunate to be able to afford to buy antiretrovirals when treatment was so expensive and only accessible to the well-heeled.
“I have survived a pandemic many have perished living under,” he said at a special Constitutional Court sitting held in his honour in Johannesburg.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world — 19 percent according to the UN AIDS agency — with more than seven million people living with the virus.
The country now has the largest state-sponsored anti-retroviral programme in the world, serving 2.5 million people.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng paid tribute to Cameron as “a brave and bold man” and for his catalytic role in mobilising authorities to roll out a mass ARV programme.
“When HIV and AIDS attracted stigma, he stood up and declared openly: ‘I am HIV positive’.”
“He could have chosen to mind his own business and care less about (others but) for the sake of the suffering masses, he not only spoke, but he acted.”
Openly gay, Cameron “helped secure the express inclusion of sexual orientation in the South African Constitution,” according to his official profile.
In 2006, South Africa became the sole African nation to allow gay marriage and it has become a haven for African homosexuals who flee persecution at home.