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.