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The Pied Piper of the broken-hearted: HIV activist Prudence Mabele

Prudence Mabele – Pru – was my guide to the new South Africa. She didn’t give you a choice about friendship. She just showed up. We met in Pretoria in 1997. She was my first friend in South Africa. I had family, many cousins, who were my age mates. But I had been raised in exile and so I didn’t have women my age with whom I shared history. Pru accompanied me. She pulled me into a history that was still being made.

The best role models don’t tell you what to do, they show you. Pru showed me how to be a South African woman. Her every action showed me what I would need to know. Long ago, before I knew how important those lessons would be, she walked ahead of me and held my hand. She taught me the two most important rules I would ever learn: Rule number one: do what it takes to survive the trauma. Rule number two: learn how to fight.

She was not just a fighter though. Pru loved. She was affectionate and completely mad – a friend called her “batty” this week and she was right. Pru was addicted to life. She was the most life-full, life-giving soul.

Pru was always very busy. There were Aids Consortium meetings and marches. She was always at the centre of them – our sister leader. She had this humour, these madcap antics and this way of seeing the world and expressing it that made her the most astute observer. She was the wisest court jester of them all. There was so much intellect in there, so much smarts about her bravery.

When things were at their worst, and Thabo Mbeki was denying the importance of the lives of black people who were mainly poor and lived in places that were unimportant, Pru never stopped pushing. She was sick sometimes, but she always pulled through. When the movement won, and the denial stopped, I thought Pru might rest. She didn’t.

Every time I saw her, she was still busy. Some of us stopped. We were tired. Or we were pulled into other struggles. Or we chose different paths. Pru didn’t stop. Even after many of us thought the life and death moment in the struggle against discrimination was over, Pru knew it wasn’t. Because it was still life and death for her and it was still life and death for South African women.

She never stopped working with support groups. Donors stopped funding support groups because they were no longer fashionable. But Pru knew the truth, which was that life for women happens in conversations, in the time it takes to sit with one another. Those groups were emotional life support for women who were in critical condition, whose lives had been shattered and whose hearts needed piecing together.

Pru did that work. She visited so many grieving families. When lesbians were killed, Pru went. When another HIV-positive woman died, Pru was there. When a woman was murdered, Pru was at the front. Painted up, dolled up, voice ragged, breathing through her mouth, swearing and joking and sweating, she was there.

Those of us who lived through the 1990s and the early 2000s as young adults witnessed the beginning of the ANC’s slide into disaster. I remember when Ferial Haffajee was the editor of the Mail & Guardian and every week there was a blood red body count – a table that tallied the number of new HIV infections and the numbers of people who had died that week. The M&G did this so that no one could look back and say they didn’t know.

For many years after the M&G retired that table, activists continued to fight – none harder nor more consistently than Pru. She was a walking reminder not just of who we had lost – her memory of the fallen was encyclopaedic – she embodied who we had been at our best. Before the Fallists who said enough and toppled statues and forced us to decolonise, there was a generation who also resisted. It was a struggle made of sex workers and queers and drug users and women accused of being sluts and infecting their men. It was a movement of the diseased and angry, a movement that chose to wear stigma like a badge of honour.

It was a movement that questioned the revolutionary leaders who were screwing people with their policies and their proclamations and their refusal to admit they were wrong. It was women – African women – who were the backbone of this movement, which told the ANC to voetsek long before everyone else realised the rainbow was a lie.

They tried to say our movement was run by white men but we knew the truth then as we know it now. Without all the women – those whose spirits watch us and those who are still alive, those whose names you will remember and those you will never know, those who ran support groups and washed the bodies of the dead and those who organised marches of thousands – there would have been no movement.

Pru and I had not hung out in a long time, when I saw her in Rosebank last year. She had on red lipstick and her hair was cut short. I told her she looked great and said: “Anyway, you’ve always been the Brenda Fassie of the Aids movement.” She laughed and said, “Ja, but I don’t do drugs, neh? I don’t need them, shem.”

We spent two hours catching up, laughing, the way we once had long ago when we were in our 20s and 30s, when we thought we could make South Africa a place where everyone had a place. My faith in South Africa foundered somewhere along the way. Between the Aids denialism that left so many of my friends and comrades dead, and the Gupta denialism that has left so many of my compatriots poorer, I am no longer convinced of our nation’s capacity to redeem itself.

Prudence never stopped believing, though. Perhaps this was because she couldn’t afford to play around with time. She moved with people, and when they wouldn’t move with her – when they didn’t want to visit the sick and the dying, when they were tired of hospital visits, when they were weary of fighting with administrators who treated HIV-positive women like shit – she went alone.

She was the Pied Piper of the broken-hearted. Her activism was fuelled by pain and passion and joy. She put her body on the line so that today, even when they mess with us – and they know who they are – they do so knowing there’s going to be a comeback. She put her body on the line, as so many women do. Time and again, there she was picketing and marching and laughing for all of our rights. Pru put her body on the line; and for that all South Africans ought to be grateful.

A giant has fallen. Lala ngoxolo sisi. Lala ngoxolo, siyohlala sikukhumbula.

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Sisonke Msimang
Guest Author

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