Waiting for an HIV cure keeps people sick, say SA's sex symbol twins
Handsome twins Thula and Ntokozo Mkhize pull a crowd of (mostly female) adoring fans wherever they go. The brothers are famous for being on TV adverts and programmes about HIV.
Last week they were at a technical vocational education & training college in Soweto promoting safe sex. But the pair could barely get their pitch in as young women swooned.
"Who here is 23?" Ntokozo asked. The crowd went wild. "Who here is having sex?" The screams were deafening.
"My brother was diagnosed with HIV when he was 23." Ntokozo points to Thula. The hall falls silent.
Then a young woman joked "I'd still do him" and the hubbub started up again.
• 56% of HIV-positive South African are on ARVs, according to UNAids
• 78m — the number of people infected by HIV worldwide
Thula is a sex symbol despite his status. He is the modern face of HIV.
The 33-year-old has been living with the virus for 10 years and, with his HIV-negative brother, runs Good Stories, an organisation focusing on HIV education and prevention.
The twins don't advocate a cure and they don't believe in HIV support groups. They say both further stigmatise people living with the virus.
Thula was diagnosed in 2009 and married his HIV-negative wife Lindo in 2012. They have two children and a baby due in July. All three children are HIV negative.
"Why would I want a cure when I can manage the virus and live a wonderful life?" he asked.
Three studies of thousands of gay and straight couples - when one person was positive and the other negative and had condomless sex - showed not a single person got HIV from their partner. The HIV-positive partners were all on ARVs with a suppressed viral load.
According to the twins, current HIV/Aids programmes focus on two things: distributing ARVs and HIV prevention.
"The problem is our conversations [about HIV] are stuck in 1998. Ask me how it's possible that my wife and I have a baby and two children who are negative. That is what we should be talking about," Thula said.
Dr Sindi van Zyl, a GP and broadcaster, agreed. "There needs to be a multi-pronged approach, which can include abstinence, condom use, the use of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] or ARVs. This is real protection. We can't talk about condom use when we know people don't use them any more."
The twins believe waiting for a cure keeps people sick.
"Should there be a cure? Yes, but people waiting for a cure fail to appreciate … If you take the pills it's as good as not having HIV. You don't need a cure for something that's manageable," Thula said.
People are exercising their rights not to date you if they don't want to date a person with HIV. And for a lot of people out there it [HIV] is not a factorThula Mkhize
"People are worried that if they come out as HIV-positive that they will be rejected. The truth is that it is not rejection. People are exercising their rights not to date you if they don't want to date a person with HIV. And for a lot of people out there it [HIV] is not a factor," Thula said.
Ntokozo said the Good Stories sessions targeted people with HIV and those who were negative because "it is pointless having a closed group for people living with HIV and then letting them back out into a community that doesn't accept them. That's why we don't believe in support groups".
Van Zyl said that the work the twins were doing was invaluable.
"The disease is totally manageable. The challenge is that it is sexually transmitted, so people still judge. We found out about five years ago undetectable equals untransmittable. The problem is that this message needs to be told.
Ntokozo said he wanted to see the virus become as normal as flu. "The problem is not with the 7-million people in SA living with HIV, the problem is with the 50-million living without it."