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Pioneering HIV Activist Prudence Mabele Passes Away

Pioneering HIV Activist Prudence Mabele Passes Away

The South African activist’s passing comes during a time when she felt betrayed by her own organization, Positive Women's Network. 

On July 10th, the world lost one of its greatest warriors in the fight against HIV. Prudence Nobantu Mabele, who had spent most of her life fighting stigma and lobbying the South African government for change, was only 46 when she passed away this month after a battle with pneumonia, reports BBC News.

Mabele was an 18-year-old college student with a bright future when she discovered her HIV diagnoses in 1990. At the time, little was known about the virus, and stigma and ignorance prevailed. But in 1992, rather than staying silent about her condition (which was encouraged by her community), Mabele showed amazing courage by coming out publicly as HIV-positive, becoming one of the first black women in South Africa to do so.

It was this act of bravery that led to a lifetime of activism for Mabele, who would spend the following years trying to break the stigma surrounding HIV in her community, and by 1996 she founded the Positive Women’s Network.

Sadly, Mabele spent the last two years of her life fighting an internal battle with the organization that she started, which had been divided by corruption, according to those closest to her. Her friend Bev Ditsie says Mabele died feeling “broken” and “betrayed,” as reported in South African news outlet, IOL.

Though the details of the discord within the organization were not reported, Mark Heywood’s (co-founder of Treatment Action Campaign) emotional words at Mabele’s funeral echo Ditsie’s comments of betrayal:

“Two years ago you wrote to me to complain about people who stabbed you in the back. I'm sorry you died feeling betrayed,” Heywood said. “At the time of your death I hear people lament that civil society is divided. There are two streams in civil society. Yours is the stream that flows cleanly and clearly. We are divided against corruption, against those who are parasitical on the response to Aids. We will build unity. Yes we will. But it will not be a fake unity. It will be unity with the poor, the marginalized, the violated and discriminated against.”

Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi, and director of United Nations Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, were among the mourners at the funeral.

Heywood said that Mabele's life-long activism was an inspiration to others, and that South Africans had a responsibility to fulfill some of Mabele's wishes.

“You were an activist, a warrior woman, a woman in a line of activists, some of whom are still larger than life. Indeed the best leaders I know are women who have risen to fight in solidarity with other women,” continued Heywood. “A book should be written about your life. We need to tell your story not just to those who know it but to those who don’t because it is a story of courage and hope.”

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