Zinhle Thabethe

When Zinhle Thabethe takes to the stage to give yet another moving account of her personal and professional battle with HIV/Aids, it’s hard to believe that this mother of one and leader of many was ever a voiceless statistic.

The 35-year-old from Umlazi is the outreach director of iTeach, a programme that improves the delivery of care and treatment for persons affected by HIV/ Aids and tuberculosis “by educating and empowering communities, medical professionals and patients alike”. A frontline activist, Thabethe provides medicine and counselling to those afflicted with HIV and mentors other counsellors to educate Aids patients. She is also the only South African to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

But back in 2002, when the Treatment Action Campaign was taking on the government for its draconian stance on HIV/Aids, Thabethe could easily have been the poster child for a government failing its people. “When I was first diagnosed the doctor told me treatment was not available and I would be dead in less than a year.” With nowhere to turn, Thabethe Thashlin Govender sought hope in the Sinikithemba Care Centre, a clinic in KwaZulu-Natal that provided care even before Aids treatment was available. It was here that she found her voice and calling, joining the Sinikithemba Choir, an HIV-positive vocal ensemble that has won international acclaim. “All we had were our voices, but that became a way to break down the stigma and encourage others to seek help.”

iTeach has recently partnered with Pop!Tech and frog design to identify ways in which technology can be used in the struggle for awareness and drug adherence across Africa. Thabethe may not be a doctor or have much in the way of formal education, but she knows that fear and ignorance are still the most dangerous threats to the eradication of HIV, which is why she is determined to fight attitudes as much as the disease itself.

Cat Pritchard