Last night, 10 years after the death of Nkosi Johnson, Mandisa Dlamini stood on a stage at the 5th South African AIDS conference in the same city and picked up the baton the young AIDS activist had left behind.
Only 13 in December of 1998 when her mother and AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini was brutally and savagely murdered by a group of men who did not like the fact that she lived so openly with the disease, Mandisa spoke passionately about the urgent need for the plight of orphans to become a priority.
She recalled the night she lay in their dark house next to her groaning mother who had been beaten ‘with everything they had’ and thrown down a cliff by her attackers who told neighbours to ‘fetch their dog, we are done with it’.
That night nobody was prepared to transport the dying woman to a hospital because they were fearful they could be infected. Dlamini lay dying next to her terrified teenage daughter that night.
‘I thought my life had come to an end. It is hard to lose someone who you always include in your dreams and visions,’ said Dlamini, who paused once to fight back the tears.
‘Let’s not only preach about pills, let’s also preach about orphans. We are the ones witnessing parents dying of AIDS. Can we also have our own ‘ARVs’’, said Dlamini, delivering the Nkosi Johnson Memorial Lecture.
‘Tonight I am standing here for all orphans out there. I am here, but what about all the others out there who are not being killed by stones, but by stigma. I am standing here for all young women out there. Nobody wants to be HIV positive, but often the situation forces you to be. Today we are burying young women who lost their parents to AIDS and the cycle goes on and on and on.’
Dlamini invoked the words of Johnson who pleaded: ‘We are people, we want to be loved and respected.’
‘We do need love and protection. We are the new generation, we know about treatment, but we don’t know how to handle the situation where we are orphans,’ said Dlamini.
Failing to fight back the tears when he introduced Dlamini, Section27 (formerly AIDS Law Project) head Mark Heywood said Dlamini and Johnson were two young heroes symbolizing tragedy, but also hope and possibility.
He said the social environment described by Dlamini in 1998 had not changed fundamentally and that stigma was still killing people, with the same violence now meted out to young lesbians with young women bearing the brunt of the HIV epidemic.
Latest statistics show that South Africa has 1,4-million AIDS orphans and 3,25-m orphans in total.
‘For a decade we worked as AIDS activists and then we became health activists. We now need to become citizen activists with HIV intrinsically linked to social progress,’ said Heywood.
Heywood said the murder of Gugu Dlamini had brought many of them into AIDS activism. ‘It was a murder that turned us into activists and helped build a movement that saved millions of lives and built the AIDS response. Tonight we completed the circle with Mandisa Dlamini,’ said Heywood.