A tribute by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
‘Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now’– Audre Lourde
It was March 2006. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa with Vera Doku, a colleague of mine from the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), as part of a tour of countries in Southern Africa to visit our grantee partners. We were waiting for the Executive Director of the first organisation we had scheduled to visit that morning. She was almost an hour late. Vera started to complain about the tardiness of our partner. I smiled and said to Vera, ‘She will show up, she always has a thousand things to do’. When Prudence Mabele eventually arrived, she was full of apologies for keeping us waiting and told us that she had been busy making preparations for our visit.
With time, the staff at AWDF got to understand the way Prudence functioned. She was not the most organized of people when it came to sending her reports in on time. It would often take several requests for her to send in her paperwork and even when she did it would still require more information to be provided. And yet, Prudence was one of our most reliable partners in the women’s movement. She was not running her network as a ‘career’. We have many actors in civil society across the continent who set up initiatives that appear to be clinically functional, with all their reports on time and their accounts in order, but their impact on the communities they claim to serve is negligible. What I learnt from Prudence Mabele as a feminist donor was that we needed to listen more to those who are working from the heart and serving their communities with everything they have. I also learnt the importance of being patient with them and understanding their context. When people like Prudence have to make a choice between spending a day writing a donor report and attending to the needs of their communities, the latter wins every time. I am not saying donor accountability is not important, I am making a distinction between people who genuinely work to support their communities and those who are mostly in the ‘donor hustle’ business.
Prudence was diagnosed with HIV when she was 18. In 1992, she was one of the first black women in South Africa to publicly disclose her HIV status. In 1996, together with a number of other women, she founded Positive Women’s Network, which grew from a handful of women to at least two thousand members across South Africa. A force of nature, Prudence was tireless and was one of those people who worked round the clock. She came of age at a time when South Africa was in transition from generations of apartheid to majority black rule. It was a time when most black South Africans were cautiously optimistic about their future, particularly under the leadership of their beloved President Nelson Mandela. It was however also a period when the historically marginalized black population knew that their deliverance from poverty and its attendant evils would not happen at any rapid pace. One trend that constituted a major crisis for South Africa as a country and for black South Africans in particular, was the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Prudence decided that her own fate was closely connected to the fates of thousands of in her community. Her HIV status was not something she was going to keep to herself, in order to avoid stigma, reproach and judgement. Prudence found and used her voice to become one of the most powerful and effective HIV/AIDS campaigners in South Africa. She was one of the founding members of the Treatment Action Campaign of South Africa which helped secure South Africa’s Universal Access HIV treatment Program, co-founder of the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, Deputy Chair of the South African AIDS Council and President of the Society of Women and AIDS in Africa. When AWDF in collaboration with the International Planned Parenthood Federation set up a regional advocacy forum, the African Women Leaders Network for Reproductive Health and Family Planning (AWLN) in 2010, Prudence was one of the first women leaders we reached out to.
Unlike many HIV/AIDS activists who can only engage at one end of the spectrum, Prudence ran the gamut from grassroots mobilization and provision of frontline services to local and international policy advocacy. I have been with Prudence in poor communities in several parts of Johannesburg. We also spent time together at international policy meetings at the United Nations or the biennial international AIDS conferences. In June 2006 at the International HIV/AIDS conference that took place in Toronto, Canada, AWDF launched a 13 Campaign as part of our commitment to funding African women’s organisations working on HIV/AIDS. It had been a great evening with speeches from Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and Stephen Lewis, who was the UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
After the formalities were over, there was music, and one of the first on the dance floor was Prudence. We all danced enthusiastically, community leaders, policy makers and donors alike. I have never forgotten that night. The dancing was an expression of the solidarity, agency and sisterhood of African women. Prudence was the embodiment of that spirit, and as she led the dancing, she was also teaching us never to forget why we were all doing this work of social justice organizing in the first place. We do this work to inspire ourselves and others. We do this to affirm our humanity and the personhood of women in particular. We also do this work to celebrate our achievements, and when we experience loss, to conserve our energies to fight another day. Later, one of my colleagues observed that it is only African women who can turn a ‘very respectable event’ into a dance party. I pointed out that people need to understand that celebration is a way of life for African people. We celebrate even when we are sad, because that is the way we find the courage to go on. In October 2007, as part of another AWDF visit to South Africa, Prudence organized a meeting in Soweto. One of the agenda items of the forum was to mourn the passing of one of the young women in the group who had been murdered by local thugs. Again, Prudence led the singing and dancing. Prudence was absolutely fearless. If she ever had any doubts or fears, it was very hard to tell. She was one of the leaders of the ‘Khwezi’ movement, which provided solidarity for the young South African woman who was allegedly raped by then Vice-President Jacob Zuma. The rape survivor was known as ‘Khwezi’ and the quest for justice to be done was a rallying point for thousands of South African women of all races who were determined to shine a light on the link between the very high levels of rape in South Africa and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
As I reflect on the life of this great daughter of Africa, I am also saddened by the fact that in many African countries, HIV/AIDS is still not taken seriously enough. Billions of dollars have been pumped into awareness raising, treatment, and sustaining coordination machineries from national to local level. Allegations of ineptitude and corruption still trail the management of the vast HIV/AIDS architecture that is supposed to bring succor to the thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS, their carers (mostly women) and those who are most vulnerable to infection, again mostly women and girls. Patriarchal norms and practices, poverty, ignorance, indifference and a lack of political will continue to work together to keep HIV infection rates high. Prudence spent her life working on all these issues, and has now gone to rest. HIV/AIDS is not resting, it is still on the move. Our leaders need to take note and lead by example. HIV/AIDS awareness is not something that should concern only healthcare professionals and the scores of NGOs who slug away doing whatever they can. It is not something we only think about every December 1st on World AIDS Day. Everyone needs to know their HIV status, seek counselling and treatment where applicable, and reduce their risk factors. There also needs to be zero tolerance for violence against women and the sexual exploitation of girls. Prudence joined her ancestors on July 10th. She fought a good fight and in death, she reminds us of the enormity of the task that lies ahead. You have earned your rest dear sister. You will forever remain in the hearts of those of us who knew you and danced with you. Please keep on dancing wherever you are.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]