Durban - "I’m grateful to be here, but I hope we don’t keep meeting like this.”

This was the plea of Oscar-winning actress and UN Messenger of Peace Charlize Theron, one of the speakers who opened the 21st International Aids Conference on Onday night.

“I’m honoured to be here but I am also sad. This is the second time South Africa has hosted the conference. This is not something to be proud of.”

Theron was quick to add that she did not mean to belittle the work done by researchers, scientists and activists, and their commitment to eliminating the disease, while ensuring fair treatment for those without proper care.

“But I think it is time to acknowledge something is wrong. It’s time we face the truth of the unjust world we live in. We have every tool to prevent HIV, but there are millions of people living with HIV. More than 2.1 million children have been orphaned.

“So why haven’t we beaten this epidemic? Maybe, we, all of us, all of humanity, don’t want to.”

She said to loud cheering and applause that some of the explanations included that it was simply too expensive, too daunting and too stigmatised to completely eliminate.

“Those are just excuses. The truth is we value some lives more than others. We value men more than women. We value straight lives more than gay lives. We value those with white skin more than black skin.”

An emotional Theron continued: “Aids does not discriminate on its own. It doesn’t single out the oppressed and abused on its own. We single out the oppressed and abused. We let them suffer, then we let them die.”

She called on today’s youth to end the epidemic.

“The solution is not just in laboratories and offices, but in communities and schools.”

Theron said it was not just Aids that destroyed lives; rather it was the culture that shamed rape victims, forced young girls to sell their bodies, and people who exploited the poor and then blamed them for their poverty.

“It is not just sexually transmitted: it is transmitted by racism, sexism, homophobia.”

#AIDS2016 co-chair Olive Shisana highlighted the plight of sex workers, men who had sex with men and transgender people, who are also still at high risk of getting HIV.

But people of African descent bore the brunt of infection. Women were also at much greater risk because of social inequality, a lack of economic activity and gender-based violence.

She said that while we had made strides in biomedical research, a lot more needed to be done in the field of behavioural prevention.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said earlier in the day that the theme for this conference – Access Equity Rights Now – resonated strongly with provisions in the South African constitution. 

“As governments, we need to work with our partners to build quality health systems and provide accessible services and support. As individuals, we have the opportunity, and equally the responsibility, to make the right choices for our health and wellness.”

Ramaphosa said that since the country last hosted the conference in 2000, it had made huge gains.

“Of the 17 million people currently on treatment worldwide, nearly 10.3 million are in this region. The number of people on treatment in eastern and southern Africa has more than doubled since 2010. Aids-related deaths in the region have decreased by more than a third over the same period.

“Mother to child transmission of HIV has been dramatically reduced.”

Challenges remained, he said.

“Too many do not have access to treatment. The rate of infection remains stubbornly high.”

This meant more hard work.

“We need to ensure that adolescents and young adults receive information and advice, and are able to access condoms and, where necessary, pre-exposure prophylaxis.”