SALT ROCK, SOUTH AFRICA — SALT ROCK, South Africa - Nelson Mandela, who has devoted much of his life since leaving South Africa's presidency to a campaign against AIDS, said yesterday that his 54-year son, Makgatho, had died of the disease in a Johannesburg clinic.
Makgatho L. Mandela had been seriously ill for more than a month, but the nature of his ailment was not made public before his death yesterday. At a news conference a few hours later in Johannesburg, the elder Mandela, 86, said he was revealing the cause of his son's death to focus more public attention on AIDS, still a taboo topic among many South Africans.
"I announce that my son has died of AIDS," he said. "Let us give publicity to HIV-AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV-AIDS, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary."
Mandela issued the statement surrounded by his family, including his daughter, Makaziwe, and his grandchildren.
Since leaving office, Mandela has been the country's most prominent voice calling for greater action against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and he has said that as president he failed to recognize the seriousness of the epidemic.
"I have been saying this for the past years even before I even suspected a member of my family has AIDS," he said yesterday.
The United Nations estimates that 5 million South Africans, including more than one in five adults, have AIDS or have been infected with HIV. But families usually attribute AIDS deaths to other causes.
If members of the family keep quiet, Mandela said, "Doctors, the nurses and other medical staff in hospitals are going to talk about it: 'Did you know that Mandela's son or grandson has died of AIDS?' And it gives a very bad reflection indeed to the members of the family that they themselves could not come out and say bravely that a member of the family has died of AIDS."
Makgatho Mandela was Mandela's only surviving son; another died in an auto accident in 1969, shortly after Mandela began 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities.