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Mandela shines brightly at all-star AIDS concert

South Africa's beloved elder statesman has turned his energies to combating an epidemic that is robbing the country of hoped for prosperity.

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The 89-year-old man walked slowly onto a stage crowded with rock stars, looked out at the audience of nearly 50,000 concertgoers, and broke into a smile. He still has it, the charisma that held his people together on the Long Walk to Freedom.

In recent years, Nelson Mandela has turned his energy from one enemy – the racist system of government called apartheid – to another – HIV and AIDS.

"If we are to stop the AIDS epidemic from expanding, we need to break the cycle of new HIV infections," said Mr. Mandela, clutching a clear acrylic podium, with his wife, Graça Machel, at his side.

"All of us working together with government, communities, and civil society can make the difference that is needed. Together we have the power to change the course of destiny," he said.

Most politicians kill the vibes of a good concert when they take the stage (a phenomenon called "buzz kill") but somehow the aging Mandela managed to steal the show at Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg, at a concert marking World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

This was not a fluke. I remember a similar concert in Boston in June 1990, just after his release from prison. The deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) was cheered by some 221,000 Bostonians when he came on stage and urged Americans to keep up the pressure on the apartheid government. When the music started again, he danced.

The two concerts – in June 24, 1990, and on Dec. 1, 2007 – serve for me as a pair of bookends in my perception of South Africa. The first concert signified euphoric hope. The second showed the profound challenges ahead. Between the two was a miraculously peaceful power transfer and the precipitous first steps of a liberation movement that aimed to change the world.

Few more than Madiba – as Mandela is known to South Africans – can appreciate the stolen promise of South Africa's emancipation in 1994, just as the HIV epidemic was taking hold. Two million deaths later, the promises of freedom, shared prosperity, homes, clean water, and opportunities have been sadly deferred by a disease that is robbing the country of its most productive citizens.

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