A true South African hero

July 24, 2017

Prudence Mabele's decision to become one of the first black South African women to declare her HIV-positive status was the start of a lifetime's campaigning.
It was 1992, and the stigma which came with such an announcement cannot be underestimated.
But Mabele was determined to be brave, and to encourage others to live without shame.
That bravery and determination would become the hallmark of Mabele's next 25 years, and would, when she died earlier this month, see her hailed as "a global icon" and "a true South African hero".
Stigma

 

Mabele was born in Benoni, just east of Johannesburg, in 1971, just one woman in a long line of activists, according to friends.

 

She was just 18 when she contracted HIV in 1990 but a search for a friend to share her fears and hopes with over this new diagnosis reportedly only led her to hospital wards filled with dying babies.
In 1992, South Africa's HIV epidemic was in its infancy. The proportion of 15 to 49-year-olds infected was just 2.5%, according to the World Bank, and it was still largely seen as a disease which affected gay men.

And yet, here was a bright, young university student, revealing she too had been infected. It was just the start of a fight which would see her not only battle prejudice, but her own government.
"When you think about how she had to confront this pandemic in 1992, how she had to go through the time when often times in South Africa, they didn't acknowledge that HIV was the cause of the pandemic — yet she was that voice," Deborah Birx, the US global Aids coordinator, told American news site PRI.
"And we should all be asking the question: 'Would we be willing to make that same personal sacrifice?'"
Over the next few years, she threw herself into trying to break the silence around HIV status, founding organisations like the Positive Women's Network in 1996.
At the same time, the numbers infected with HIV/Aids in South Africa continued to soar: by 1998, 2,900,000 were thought to be infected, equating to 15.1% of the adult population.

 

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