In 1998, HIV/AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini was beaten to death near KwaMashu township outside Durban after publicly disclosing her HIV-positive status. Her death, an example of the depth of HIV stigma, shook South Africa. Dlamini’s death almost destroyed her daughter, Mandisa, who was just 13 years old when her mother died. Now 25, Mandisa spoke about her experience as part of this year’s Nkosi Johnson memorial lecture, named for South Africa’s youngest HIV activist who died in 2001, at the SA AIDS 2011 Conference.
“Most of you know Gugu Dlamini as a hero, who came out about her HIV status. You don’t know the real Gugu Dlamini, you don’t know her life as a young woman, as a single young parent who was unemployed and the challenges she went through to support her child and support herself, the mistakes and the pain she went through that drove her to be HIV-infected.
“When my mother first got her [government-issued] house in KwaZulu-Natal, men around the area were not happy. They said, ‘She’s unemployed, she’s a single parent, how did she get this house? She slept with a councillor.’ They never believed that a young woman could actually make something out of herself without using her body to survive.
“I remember it was December… when my mother came out about her HIV status. She came to me first and said, ‘Mandisa, I will go and tell everyone about AIDS.’ I didn’t know what AIDS was, but my mother went on national TV and told her story. Her friend came over a few days later and said, ‘Let’s go to a party.’ I never saw my mother again.
“When they were [at the party], people said a guy came in and pushed [my mother] outside and asked her, ‘What are you doing here? You want to kill us all?’ Then they [members of the community] started beating her with anything they could find. When they were done, they pushed her down a cliff and they told the neighbour, who was also [HIV] infected and a friend of my mother’s, ‘Go and tell them to come and fetch their dog, we are done with it.’
“I had to go there with [my mother’s] boyfriend to fetch her. We went and looked for help from the neighbours but they wouldn’t because they thought their cars would also be infected and they would die of AIDS.
"I couldn’t go to the hospital until Wednesday and I couldn’t even recognize her because she was so swollen. She had died on Monday.
“I thought my life had come to an end... I can’t explain the pain I went through but I’m sure you can imagine what it’s like... You see your future with that person, you don’t see yourself without that person and suddenly you wake up and she’s not there. Now everything around you has to change – your dreams, your future. I had dreams to be a social worker but no one was there to coach me.
|They started beating her with anything they could find. When they were done, they pushed her down a cliff and they told the neighbour, who was ... a friend of my mother's 'Go and tell them to come fetch their dog'|
“The person who [took me in and] promised to take care of me as an orphan... she thought she was helping me, but she destroyed my life. Social workers, who said, ‘We’ll look after you, we’ll come visit you,’ they came but they never spoke to me... People who promised to take me to school, they were not there; friends, family – they all ran away.
“I worked at a tavern to survive. I was forced to do terrible things to survive. [At the tavern] I [was] beaten, called a bitch… yet I was only 14 years old. I know the pain of being pregnant at 15, giving birth on a Friday and on Monday being back at school, going back to the tavern. I know the pain of not having a relationship with your child because you wake up every morning and go to school – you come back at 11 at night [from work] and the child is asleep.
“When I ran away [to Pretoria], I left the child – I didn’t even know where I was going. In Pretoria I was supposed to be placed at a place of safety... the woman who was supposed to place me, she couldn’t. She said to me, ‘Mandisa, I don’t know why but I see something in you.’
“She took me to her home, no one knew where I was, even at her work. She taught me how to be a strong woman, she gave me unconditional love, she protected me.”