Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday hailed HIV and gender activist Prudence Mabele as a fearless fighter and a passionate activist, saying that she had set an example for others to follow.
“Prudence was a modern-day iteration of the fearlessness, steadfast conviction and selfless activism that drove Sophie de Bruyn, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and so many other notable women to the very bastion of the apartheid regime,” Ramaphosa said.
“Like those who marched on the Union Buildings, she did not see the struggle that she had to fight in one dimension. It was not a fight simply for the rights of people living with HIV. It was a fight to affirm the rights, dignity and wellbeing of every person who suffered discrimination, oppression, stigmatisation and exploitation.”
Ramaphosa was speaking at Mabele’s funeral service on Wednesday morning at the Rhema Bible Church in Randburg.
Mabele, who was the founder and executive director of Positive Women’s Network, succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 46 in a Rosebank hospital in Johannesburg last week. She broke ground in 1992 in South Africa by publicly revealing her HIV-positive status.
Mabele also sat on the board of the South African National Aids Council, advising government on issues of sexual and reproductive health, as well as HIV.
Ramaphosa said Mabele was a multi-faceted individual who shouted and marched and challenged authority, and later went home to the silent sacred space of the ancestors where she meditated and connected with the spirits.
“It is fair to say that when HIV struck the 18-year-old Prudence Mabele, it struck a rock. Prudence decided not to hide her status, becoming one of the very first South African women to publicly acknowledge her HIV status,” Ramaphosa said.
“She had to change her course of study from medical technology because the institution, Peninsula Technikon, feared that she may infect other students in the laboratory. Her hospital file was stamped with a big red X and nurses who treated her asked her if she was a sex worker.”
Meanwhile, HIV activists gathered at Mabele’s funeral, disrupted a speech delivered by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi by breaking into song and staged a walk-out when Ramaphosa took to the podium.
Motsoaledi had issued a “warning” to HIV activists that “the battle has not been won”, saying that government, the private sector and civil society must continue to work together to not fail young people.
Andrew Mosane, an HIV activist and a member of the Treatment Action Campaign, said they felt disrespected by Motsoaledi.
“People felt that the minister was disrespecting them. Instead of introducing the deputy president, the Minister kept on giving us statistics which are not even interesting,” Mosane said.
“People are still dying of TB and pneumonia, mere opportunistic infections that are supposed to be treated. [Prudence] succumbed to it because the health system in South Africa is failing. So we walked out because the minister did the opposite of what we wanted him to do. If it was my funeral, she would have done the same.”