The killers of Aids activist Gugu Dlamini may not escape justice, thanks to a public outcry that has caused the Directorate of Public Prosecutions to intervene.

Dlamini was kicked, beaten and stoned to death by a group of men outside a KwaMashu shebeen in December 1998 — apparently because she had admitted to being HIV positive. At the time of her death, she was described as “South Africa’s first AIDS martyr.

Hours before her death, Dlamini (36) was assaulted by a young man at her home. He apparently threatened that he would return. However, the police failed to respond to Dlamini’s appeals for help.

Recently charges were dropped against four youths accused of her murder due to “insufficient evidence”. This was despite the fact that the investigating officer in the case did not pursue a number of leads.

When the charges were dropped, there was an outcry and the AIDS Consortium an HIV/AIDS lobbying group launched a protest campaign.

The Director of Prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal, Advocate Mokotedi Mpshe, has now taken up the matter. He has given the police investigating the case until early October to come up with “some substantial evidence” to prosecute the killers.

Should they fail to do so, Mpshe says he has the power to “redirect them to investigate certain aspects of the case further”. As a last resort, an inquest into Dlamini’s death may be held.

“Sometimes fresh evidence is led in an inquest which warrants criminal charges being pressed once more, said Mpshe.

Mpshe says his office believes that Dlamini’s case is of great symbolic importance.

“Government is concerned about HIV/AIDS sufferers in the country,” said Mpshe. “We take it that Gugu Dlamini died because of disclosure [of her HIV positive status]. If we don’t deal with the case in a satisfactory way, other HIV/ AIDS sufferers will not come forward. They will say there is no point because you get killed; there is no legal protection.

“But we need to encourage people to come forward and be open to curb the spreading of the epidemic.”

Anita Kleinsmidt of the AIDS Law Project, who has been involved in the Dlamini case, says Dlamini’s disclosure of her HIV status “came in response to Thabo Mbeki’s call last year for people to be open about the disease”.

“What Dlamini learnt is that openness can be extremely hazardous. People can only be open in a safe environment where they will not lose their jobs or be discriminated against. We need to work to achieve an environment where being open is not dangerous.”

Ironically, Durban is to host a huge international AIDS conference next year focussing on people living with AIDS, called “Break the Silence”.

Conference chairperson Professor Hoosen Coovadia said the conference organisers were “appalled by the failure of our detective system to apprehend the killers of Gugu Dlamini”.

“It will be a terrible tragedy if no one will receive just punishment for her death. It is a disgrace that nothing has been said about it. This country has a long history of discrimination. Now, racial and religious discrimination are slammed but there seems to be very little outcry about discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS.” Kerry Cullinan is a journalist with health-e, the online health news agency.

[published: City Press, Sunday 26/9/99]