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Prudence Mabele: Aids activist who stood with Khwezi

Prudence Mabele was the first black South African woman to reveal publicly that she was HIV positive

30 July 2017 - 00:25 By CHRIS BARRON

Prudence Mabele, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 45, was the first black South African woman to reveal publicly that she was HIV positive.
This was in 1992 when South Africa's HIV/Aids epidemic was in its infancy. According to World Bank figures, just 2.5% of 15-to 49-year-olds were infected. Aids was still seen as a disease which affected mostly gay men.
The environment around HIV/Aids was thick with fear, loathing and stigma. Those who had it were shunned, often by their families. Mabele's decision was an act of extraordinary courage. But it was just the start.
She became one of the most vocal and inspirational Aids activists in the country. She founded or co-founded the Positive Women's Network, People Living with HIV/Aids, and the Treatment Action Campaign — organisations that provided critically needed practical and emotional support for those with HIV/Aids, fought for access to affordable antiretrovirals and forced the government to roll them out.
She soon extended her activism to gender issues, supporting and fighting for the rights of abused women, none more so than lesbians. She was one of the first black women to be proudly open about being lesbian, when black lesbians were ostracised, assaulted and murdered.She openly supported Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo ("Khwezi") when she took Jacob Zuma to court in 2006 for allegedly raping her, when many powerful women, including the ANC Women's League, were baying for her blood. Mabele befriended her and was a pillar of support, not least when Khwezi became extremely ill and was dying.
Born in Benoni on July 21 1971, Mabele was provocative; never afraid to offend, speak truth to power or call people out when she thought they were lying or being hypocritical, whether government ministers, colleagues or even friends.
A natural leader who was larger than life, eccentric and never one to follow the beaten path, she gave a generation of women belief in themselves and hope.
What few saw behind the exuberance and frequent laughter were the periods of depression, sadness and uncertainty. She had many friends but there were times when she felt terribly alone. In the early 2000s particularly, those with HIV/Aids were dying in large numbers. Many were part of her network, people she had befriended and visited in hospital.
In 2004 she became a sangoma. A first-year student of analytical chemistry when she was diagnosed at the age of 18 after being raped, she believed in Western medicine — no one fought harder to broaden access to it — but she felt that traditional medicine gave people what Western medicine did not: a belief system, counselling and compassion.
This was at a time when health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was trying to mobilise traditional healers against the TAC and specifically people like Mabele.
They accused her of promoting Western medicine over traditional remedies, and labelled her a "traitor". During an anti-TAC march through the streets of Johannesburg they chanted "Phansi ngo Prudence [Down with Prudence]."
Mabele, who never hesitated to tackle Tshabalala-Msimang face to face, openly confronted her at the international Aids conference in Toronto in 2006 where she and then-president Thabo Mbeki were forced to retreat from their Aids denialism.
In the last years of her life she felt she had been betrayed by colleagues who voted her out as deputy chair of the South African National Aids Council.
She felt the council had been captured by people who, unlike her generation of activists, didn't have the interests of people with HIV at heart.
She felt they were motivated by a desire for political power and access to resources, and saw the Aids council as a convenient vehicle for their personal interests.
Much as she believed in it, Mabele did not adhere to her treatment. As a result her immune system was all but destroyed. Her CD4 count shortly before she died was 14 (a normal CD4 count is around 1000). Having previously had TB she got pneumonia, which killed her.
She is survived by her mother, Fikile, and two sisters. 

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