True Story – Ac­tivist Sibulele Sibaca

Sibulele Sibaca was or­phaned by HIV/AIDS at age 16, but re­fused to be a vic­tim of her cir­cum­stances. The 35-yearold speaker, au­thor and en­tre­pre­neur shares how she fought un­til the odds were fi­nally stacked in her favour


“My older brother and I were raised in a lov­ing home by very present par­ents. Both of them were ed­u­ca­tors, with my dad be­ing for­tu­nate enough to ad­vance to be­come a schools in­spec­tor around the Western Cape. When an up­mar­ket sec­tion was built in the town­ship, we were one of the first fam­i­lies to move there — I’d say we had a fairly priv­i­leged child­hood. Life was great un­til my mother fell ill when I was 12 — she was in and out of hos­pi­tal and my fam­ily didn’t think it nec­es­sary to tell me what was wrong with her, per­haps to pro­tect me.

In June 1996, my mother passed away just as I was tran­si­tion­ing into teenage­hood. I mostly felt sorry for my ma­ter­nal grand­mother who had buried her son, my un­cle, in May of that same year. My grand­mother was not moved by the ru­mours that did the rounds about her chil­dren’s deaths. In­stead, she fo­cused on tak­ing care of my brother and I. Even though my dad en­sured that we wanted for noth­ing, his re­la­tion­ship with my brother be­came strained. Theirs had al­ways been an un­sta­ble con­nec­tion be­cause my brother was very close to my mother, and I, on the other hand, was daddy’s girl.

I sus­pect things be­came worse be­cause he un­der­stood what had hap­pened to our mother be­cause he was older. Just as I was be­com­ing grate­ful for still hav­ing a par­ent, my dad — in ex­actly the same man­ner as my mom — be­came ill. I was 16 when he even­tu­ally passed away. His ill­ness left me so con­fused!

I was in a taxi shortly af­ter my dad’s funeral when two women started talk­ing about the events sur­round­ing re­cent fu­ner­als — my fa­ther’s name came up in this dis­cus­sion. They said that my dad, who was well-known in our com­mu­nity, had been killed by HIV/AIDS. At 16, I fully un­der­stood what HIV was and how it was trans­mit­ted be­cause we’d been taught at school. In those days, HIV was linked to un­faith­ful­ness. Nat­u­rally, a lot of ques­tions raced through my mind — I pon­dered about who, be­tween them, had been un­faith­ful to the other. In all hon­esty, I think I was mostly shocked by my fam­ily’s as­so­ci­a­tion with the dis­ease. I’d seen the stereo­typ­i­cal por­trayal of HIV-pos­i­tive peo­ple as poor and hope­less, and my par­ents looked noth­ing like that. Livid and con­fused, I con­fronted my brother. I was al­ready an­gry at my fa­ther be­cause he’d promised to al­ways be there for me but this, cou­pled with the added pres­sure of be­ing a teenage girl, meant I was an emo­tional wreck.

My aunt re­cently told me that my mother had writ­ten a let­ter ask­ing that her best friend take care of me should she pass on — but she never did. This wasn’t sur­pris­ing at all be­cause when my par­ents were still alive, some of the peo­ple we’d been close to our whole lives dis­ap­peared. Be­cause I was su­per skinny grow­ing up, I also wasn’t spared from the HIV/AIDS ru­mours. Just re­cently, I was telling some­one how my dad would wake me up at 2 am and force me to eat be­cause it irked him that peo­ple said that ‘I was just as sick as my mom’. I didn’t see the need to dis­count th­ese ru­mours be­cause it would have meant play­ing into the stereo­type that there’s some­thing wrong with be­ing HIV-pos­i­tive.

My older brother was my sav­ing grace — he sat me down, told me to snap out of it and promised me that we were in this life thing to­gether. ‘From now on­wards, I just want you to worry about what you want to be in life’, he said. Now fees were due, but the school didn’t know that my fa­ther had died. My brother and I sought help from so­cial work­ers and this is why, to this day, I tell peo­ple that I was raised by the South African govern­ment. We hardly ever talk about the govern­ment’s good work, yet we’re quick to point out their wrongs.

I re­ceived a child sup­port grant from the govern­ment. The so­cial work­ers in­structed my school not to kick me out of or change my qual­ity of life at school as that would dis­rupt my stud­ies – I’d been trau­ma­tised enough al­ready. I also had hourly ses­sions with a ther­a­pist ev­ery Wednes­day for two years. I’m often asked how I even­tu­ally be­came okay, and I hon­estly owe it all to my ther­a­pist, who would some­times al­low me to nap on her couch when I was too tired to talk.

Post ma­tric, I be­came a ground­breaker for loveLife, a youth lead­er­ship pro­gramme sup­ported by the Depart­ment of So­cial De­vel­op­ment. My ten­ure there helped me dis­cover things about my­self that I didn’t know I was ca­pa­ble of.

At one of our events in Dur­ban, once, the MC didn’t pitch and I was asked to take over. There I was on stage, in front of thou­sands of scream­ing chil­dren, co-pre­sent­ing with kwaito muso Zola 7. I loved that at loveLife, I used to get thrown into the most in­cred­i­ble sit­u­a­tions and I would just thrive. Even though HIV had robbed me of a chance to be raised by my par­ents, I loved get­ting in­volved in loveLife’s pro­grammes, be­cause I re­alised that in help­ing oth­ers stay HIV-nega­tive, I was also heal­ing my­self. loveLife used to pay us an R800 stipend, which was enough for com­mut­ing and buy­ing toi­letries.

Fol­low­ing my time at loveLife, I was scouted by Richard Bran­son af­ter I’d done some cor­po­rate in­vest­ment work for Vir­gin Group. This came with the op­por­tu­nity to travel and learn from this renowned busi­ness­man, which was a lot of fun. But I be­came home­sick, par­tic­u­larly be­cause I wanted to get fully in­volved with the so­cial en­trepreneur­ship ven­ture that my busi­ness part­ner and I had set up in 2012. I then started the Sibulele Sibaca Foun­da­tion in 2016 — what­ever profit is made from the busi­ness is chan­nelled into the foun­da­tion. I re­cruit young girls and share my life story with them. I want to ex­pose them to some of the de­ci­sions I made along the way with the hope that they will learn some­thing from them. I host sem­i­nars and Christ­mas lunches be­cause some of the girls come from or­phan­ages. For the first time this year, I took the foun­da­tion to the next level.

I’ve re­cently been an­nounced as the Global Fund HER Voice am­bas­sador. HER Voice is a global cam­paign that seeks to help 13 African coun­tries with the high­est HIV rates, and South Africa is at the top of the list. The HER stands for HIV Epi­demic Re­sponse and is aimed at help­ing young girls speak out loud enough to be heard. My job as an am­bas­sador is to speak about and ad­vo­cate for it, and en­sure that peo­ple are get­ting the sup­port that they need. The re­sponse I’m get­ting from the girls and their par­ents has been over­whelm­ing and helps me sleep at night.”

I re­alised that in help­ing oth­ers stay HIVneg­a­tive, I was also heal­ing my­self.

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