World AIDS Day

A Life Battling AIDS

In the early 1990s, as South Africans celebrated the release of Nelson Mandela, Prudence Mabele discovered that she was HIV positive. Two years later, she became one of the first women in her country to go public with her disease; a courageous decision inspired by the desire to fight the social stigma attached to HIV.

Linda Nordling meets PRUDENCE MABELE

Twenty years ago, Prudence Nobantu Mabele received the news that changed her life: HIV positive. It came as a shock. At the time, AIDS was a disease associated with homosexual men, or prostitutes. Not run-of-the-mill students. “I tried to understand how I got it,” she says. “My life was like most people’s. I went to church on Sundays; on Saturdays I would meet friends and sometimes we had parties together. It didn’t make sense.”

Raised by her grandmother and surrounded by strong women, Prudence grew up in the outskirts of Johannesburg in the 1970s. She received a good education despite the skewed apartheid education system.

In 1990, she arrived in Cape Town to pursue higher studies. But as news of her ‘situation’ spread across the campus, life got difficult. At the time, people with HIV faced hair-raising discrimination. For instance, staff and students at her University talked about her behind her back. She was called before the student disciplinary committee, and felt like they were seeking ways to expel her. She was forced to see a psychologist, who wrote a report in agreement with the University. “There was a breach of confidentiality with all that I had said in the report,” she recalls.

Prudence left the University in protest and consulted a legal expert for advice—only to have another door slammed in her face. “I told him about my case, and that I wanted to fight the University. But he wasn’t interested.”

Regaining Respect

Feeling alone and dejected, she approached a local AIDS information and prevention centre in Cape Town. “They were very happy to meet me. They needed someone who was willing to stand up and challenge the prejudice against HIV-infected individuals.” She realised that getting involved would be a way of regaining power and respect.

She met with medical staff to examine how HIV positive patients were being treated in hospitals. “At that time, when you came into a hospital, people sort of saw you as already being nearly dead,” she says.

Doctors would disclose their patients’ HIV status left, right and centre, and expect them to turn up with some other diseases. “It was quite right that they should protect themselves. But there were so many things that were unnecessary,” she says. One of her first run-ins with the severity of the disease occurred during a visit to a ‘cancer ward’ located near Cape Town where white, homosexual men were wasting away. One of the patients, however, assured her that there was hope. “He told me to go back and live my life.”

The visit was a turning point. Prudence started to send letters to hospitals in Cape Town, asking to meet other people with HIV, which put her in touch with women, like her, who were living with the virus.

In 1995, she helped to found the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS (NAPWA-South Africa). The same year, South Africa hosted a major international conference on the pandemic. As Prudence’s audience grew, so did her reputation. “People all over South Africa would point fingers at me, and say: ‘There is that woman who has AIDS.’”

A haven for women

Prudence knows that AIDS will kill a lot of poor, black women. South Africa had—and still has—one of the world’s highest rape statistics, and women are often robbed of control over their own bodies. Even where condoms could stop transmission, women are often not in a position to insist on using them.

Prudence launched Positive Women’s Network (PWN) in 1996. “I wanted to empower black women,” she says. For the first time, a spotlight was shone on the problems HIV positive women faced.

The early days were hard. As funding was scarce, Prudence had to finance PWN out of her own pocket. Moreover, the outlook for HIV positive South Africans was grim. “Many people died because there were no drugs, nothing was there. It was up to you to survive.”

Today, a HIV positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. As a result, one of the messages that PWN wants to spread to HIV positive women is that they have options. “I tell them that this is a time to change their lives,” Prudence says.

Many women have come to work at PWN before going on to do great things. One came to PWN thinking her life was over—now she has a PhD. Another woman, a schoolteacher who was raped and contracted HIV, now works at the United Nations. A third came to PWN with no skills; she works in banking now.

Becoming complacent

Prudence is, however, a little disappointed that there are still so many people contracting the virus.

“Culture is a major culprit,” she says. “Men’s attitudes towards women’s rights and sexuality need to change. But women have to help the process. I hear the most weird things from women, such as: ‘My boyfriend doesn’t want me to use a condom.’ In these cases, I ask myself: ‘Are there no other men out there for this woman?’”

The widespread use of anti-HIV drugs has also made people complacent, she says. “People under-estimate the drugs, thinking they are sweets. But it’s not that easy. The extended use of these medications, which you must take on time, can lead to multiple secondary problems. If anybody could prevent this disease from happening to them, they should try their best to do it.”

In her spare time, Prudence practices as a sangoma, a South African traditional healer. “It keeps me grounded,” she says. However, she still refers patients to HIV clinics. “I help them find counselling and introduce them to PWN.” And at the same time, she keeps taking on new activities. Last year, she studied management at Witwatersrand Business School.

Despite the hardships that she has endured, Prudence considers herself blessed. She is grateful for the support she gets from her family, who support her fully. Her grandmother, 92, is poor but healthy. Prudence is not married, but has a partner who copes well with her busy schedule. What is the key to happiness? “Not to take yourself too seriously,” she says. “I can look back and laugh at myself, because I am not perfect. There is beauty in life. It should never be boring.”

Linda Nordling is a Swedish journalist residing in South Africa.

Prudence Nobantu Mabel, 40, is one of the first black women in South Africa to disclose her HIV positive status and as a tireless campaigner for HIV/AIDS sufferers and women’s rights. Founder and executive director of the Positive Women’s Network (PWN). She sits on the African Women’s Leaders Network that addresses Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for women in Africa. She also serves on the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), which advises the government on issues relating to HIV and AIDS.

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