THE FACE OF CHANGE
Sanele Xaba, SA’s first male albino model, hopes his success will inspire others who are living with the condition ‘I was tired of being different and attracting attention’
PEOPLE stop to stare as he emerges from a cab in one of Cape Town’s busiest streets but he barely notices – he’s been gawked at for as long as he can remember.
But these days Sanele Xaba isn’t only turning the heads of curious strangers, he’s attracting attention from some of the top dogs in the modelling world and all eyes are on him as he strides confidently down the catwalks at international fashion shows.
The 22-year-old was named the face of the Bermuda International Collections last year – an initiative that showcases the talents of designers from around the world – and when we catch up with him he’s just returned from a show in Amsterdam as part of the collection.
“Amsterdam is an amazing place,” he says enthusiastically. “I would love to be able to afford to buy a flat there.”
He divides his time between Cape Town and Europe and loves exploring new places, he says.
Sanele has taken centre stage in shows for top brands such as Adidas and Japanese fashion house Kapital Clothing and proudly declares he has “penetrated the international market”.
“I’m making a name for myself,” he adds.
Last year the born and bred Durbanite was nominated for male model of the year at the Abryanz Style and Fashion Awards in Kampala, Uganda, showing he’s making his mark in Africa too.
Sanele is the first South African male model with albinism to crack the international scene and sometimes he still
has to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming.
“It’s been a fantastic journey and I’ve been truly blessed,” he says. “It has boosted my confidence in a big way.
“I used to be shy because of all the negativity I experienced but now I feel like I’m an ambassador for every person living with albinism. I want my success to motivate other people with this condition to dream big and not feel ashamed.
“We are capable of achieving anything in life and our skin shouldn’t be a stumbling block.”
SANELE isn’t kidding when he says he’s experienced negativity – in fact, it started from day one when members of his family asked his mother, Sithembisile, whether she’d taken the wrong baby home from the hospital.
When he was growing up in Lamontville near Durban, people called him names such as umlungu (white guy), which baffled and upset him as a little boy.
“I was living among these people and speaking their language. I kept asking my mother why I couldn’t have a black skin like everyone else. I was tired of being different and attracting attention wherever I went.”
After primary school his mom sent him to Glenwood High School in Durban, a former model C school, hoping he would be more accepted if he escaped the day-to-day ridicule in the township.
Sadly, it wasn’t so. Not only was he taunted by his classmates, he also endured snide remarks from adults as he made his way to and from school.
“I could almost understand the remarks from fellow learners because they were just kids. But to get the same treatment from adults was heartbreaking. “However, every time I went home and told my mom about my daily experiences she told me to ignore them and always assured me of her love and support. She was my rock and still is.”
Then something happened that changed his life forever and made his bullies look at him with new eyes.
Sanele, who had grown into a teen with striking looks and lithe limbs, was out on the streets of Durban one day when he was scouted by a representative from iindoni Models agency.
She told Sithembisile her 15-year-old son was destined for great things in the modelling industry, which is always on the lookout for the unusual and the exceptional.
“Luckily my mom agreed and I signed up with the agency,” he says. “I remember my first gig was at a fashion show at the Durban July in 2010.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got a cheque for a couple of thousand rand – it was quite a lot of money for a 15-yearold. I bought myself a BlackBerry and gave the rest to my mother.”
During the Durban July Sanele met Andre Martin, owner of clothing brand Life, who told him how impressed he was with him and how he would love to use him in some of his campaigns.
“I told him to speak to my agent,” he says with a chuckle. “Before I knew it my face was in every second shop in some of Durban’s most upmarket malls!”
Gig after gig followed but Sanele made sure they happened over weekends so they didn’t interfere with his schoolwork.
After matric he decided to dedicate himself to modelling full time and see how far he got – and so far, so very good.
IF THERE’S one person who has inspired him over the years it’s Refilwe Modiselle, South Africa’s first female model living with albinism. “I respect Refilwe a lot,” Sanele says. “I think she paved the way not only for young women with albinism but the whole community. I’ve met her a couple of times and she’s given me a lot of advice on how to keep my head up in this industry.”
In a continent like Africa, where people living with albinism are persecuted and even murdered because of the colour of their skin, Sanele wants to play a leading role in creating awareness and fighting the stigma.
He often does motivational talks around the country and is also part of Under the Same Sun, an NGO in Tanzania that educates people about albinism and fights discrimination.
“Over the years a number of people with albinism have been murdered in Tanzania for all sorts of weird beliefs. I’m glad to be part of the NGO – it’s something that’s close to my heart.”
As for his heart when it comes to love, it remains free. Given his hectic schedule and frequent travelling, he admits he would be “doing an injustice to a relationship”.
“What girl wants to date a guy who’s forever away? I don’t want to date for the sake of dating. I want to give my partner my full attention and right now modelling is consuming all my time.”
But he would love to be in love “when the time is right” and start a family.
“I want to have as many kids as possible – and adopt some too,” he says.
And when that happens, they can talk about how their daddy helped changed the world and make it a better place.
LEFT: Sanele Xaba is in demand as a model – both locally and internationally. He’s proud to represent people living with albinism and wants to fight stigma by educating people about the skin condition.
ABOVE: Walking the ramp during South African Menswear Week in Cape Town last year. RIGHT: Sanele as a young boy at a family gathering.