Black Stars Gather to Put Spotlight on AIDS in South Africa

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Artists for a New South Africa celebrates the 75th birthday of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. ANSA is an organization with the goal of eradicating AIDS in South Africa with help from celebrity activists. Farai Chideya reports.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now a little something about the power of celebrity, black celebrity in particular. This week in Los Angeles I walked through a throng of film and music stars to attend a benefit for ANSA. That's stands for Artists for a New South Africa.

The event celebrated the 75th birthday of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Mr. DESMOND TUTU (Archbishop): It's celebrating me, but it's also, in a way, celebrating people who were involved in the struggle against apartheid.

CHIDEYA: A man of humility, Archbishop Tutu moved the spotlight from him to those there to honor him.

Mr. TUTU: We're celebrating people who are continuing and saying we want to help you in South Africa really make a success of this incredible experiment in race relations.

CHIDEYA: In addition to the man of the hour, the evening featured an array of black celebrities that would make even the editors of Jet magazine envious. Take Samuel L. Jackson, a long-time ANSA member who sees Archbishop Tutu as an inspiration.

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor; ANSA Member): People talk about Mandela and all the things that he's done, but, you know, the Arch is one man that you look at all the time you see someone who kind of epitomizes what we would like to be or would like to become spiritually in terms of being able to forgive and love. And when you're around him it's almost like, you know, you've know him forever and he's known you, and he embraces you and he gives you this sort of feeling of I need to go out and do more.

CHIDEYA: Artists for a New South Africa was born during the apartheid struggle. Now the organization focuses on issues including education and AIDS. And ANSA has been incredibly successful at leveraging the power of celebrities, most of them African-American, to promote growth on the African continent.

Actor CCH Pounder of the television show The Shield says celebrities can use their powers in good ways or bad.

Ms. CCH POUNDER (Actor): The choice of celebrity is that we can go to the (unintelligible) and I can take off my clothes and show you the whoops and the whoops and you'll still get the news that says she was willing to take her shirt off in support of breast cancer or AIDS or poverty or a children's fund. And it has been the unfortunate or fortunate extra package that celebrities get is that you have the opportunity to change people's minds and change people's hearts and have them participate in world politics and world love.

CHIDEYA: Actress and author Jasmine Guy sees many similarities between the black American struggle and the South African freedom struggle.

Ms. JASMINE GUY (Actress; Author): We too come from an apartheid government. I don't care what they call it - Jim Crow, whatever. And we have to share with them the lessons that we're learning. We're just a little bit ahead, maybe 20 years, not that much.

CHIDEYA: You know, one thing that someone said to me tonight was that the struggles that are going on in South Africa with AIDS to preserve voting rights are a mirror of the struggles in America. Do you see similarities?

Ms. GUY: Oh absolutely. But I love that they have, first of all, forgiven so many people, and still for us I don't think we have really forgiven. And forgiveness heals the wounded as well as the perpetrator.

CHIDEYA: But at least one star at this ANSA event was speaking on issues affecting regions outside of South Africa. Don Cheadle starred in the film Hotel Rwanda, about genocide in that nation. Now he's turned his attention to the genocide in Darfur.

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): When does the world body have a right to say we can't stand by while the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of people occurs.

CHIDEYA: Why do you think it is that people are not mobilized and motivated more? What could be done to get people really force the issue to prevent genocide in Darfur?

Mr. CHEADLE: For one, it's happening very far away and we cannot see the affect of their deaths on our lives day to day. We don't really believe in our spirit that a heinous act like that somehow diminishes all of us. And it takes something very dramatic to happen to people to get them to react.

CHIDEYA: African-American celebrities have been involved in African issues for generations. Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone were just a few. So in many ways ANSA is providing a forum to continue that work, even through new generations.

Nineteen-year-old actress Jurnee Smollett is the youngest board member of ANSA's Amandla AIDS Fund. Her job is to educate kids about AIDS in the U.S. and South Africa.

Ms. JURNEE SMOLLETT (Actress): It's really the disease that needs to be combated. Really, you know, and we care about our South African brothers and sisters so much. And this is really the new apartheid, you know. And so why not pick up that fight?

CHIDEYA: AIDS, genocide, poverty, lack of adequate healthcare. All are issues devastating Africa. The fight against them will take a concerted effort, but the black stars I talked to this week seem like they're ready to do more than their shares. The question is: Will others follow their lead?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today.

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