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“An army of orphans”: the ravages of AIDS in South Africa


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First his father, his mother the following year: AIDS deprived Ndumiso Gamede of his parents in quick succession, like many South Africans in the mid-2000s. Treatments have since stabilized the crisis, but the effects of this “lost generation” are still being felt.

Turned rapper, the young man of 28 years, who had to raise his little brothers from the age of 13, shows photos of his parents hanging on a dimly lit wall of the garage where he lives in the poor township of Vosloorus, about 30 miles from Johannesburg.

“They were both HIV positive, their death almost devastated me”he confided to AFP, regretting not having “had nobody” to guide him through adolescence. He escaped drugs, crime, he says music saved him.

Doctor Beetroot

A few days before World AIDS Day, the 1er December, South Africa still has 13.7% HIV positive. One of the highest rates in the world. But more than 5.4 million, out of an estimated 8.2 million people infected, are taking antiretrovirals, one of the largest HIV treatment programs in the world, which has dramatically reduced mortality.

“The number of children orphaned by AIDS has decreased” accordingly, recalls Agnes Mokoto, who runs a dedicated program in Cape Town within the NGO Networking HIV. They rose from 1.9 million in 2009 to 960,000 in 2021, according to UNAIDS. The gap in the age pyramid due to the epidemic has created a lost generation, especially young parents.

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“In the dark days of the turn of the millennium, people were dying en masse, creating an army of orphans”summarizes doctor Linda-Gail Bekker, of the Desmond-Tutu Foundation for HIV.

Ndumiso’s parents disappeared at the height of the scourge some fifteen years ago. At that time, the infection spread all the more rapidly as the then president, Thabo Mbeki, did not recognize the crisis, delaying the massive deployment of antiretrovirals.

More than 330,000 lives have been lost in this way, linked to the mismanagement of Mr. Mbeki and his Minister of Health, nicknamed “Doctor Beet”., because she recommended decoctions with lemon as a remedy, citing a study from Harvard University.


Despite progress, the South African government “remains concerned about high infection rates”above all “among adolescent girls and young women”Vice-President David Mabuza recently underlined.

“Transactional sex” with older men, nicknamed “sugar daddies” Where “hurt”are largely responsible for this spread, fueled by very high unemployment (33.9%).

And the stigmatization of these women often prevents “satisfactory health care”says Sibongile Tshabalala, president of the Treatment Action Campaign, referring to nurses blaming those who ask for condoms or want to be tested.

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The taboo or embarrassment around AIDS also isolated the young musician’s siblings. When their parents die, the maternal family “turned their backs, they didn’t want to know (…) what we were missing”remembers the lanky young man.

The neighbors gave them food. Ndumiso found a job in a fast food restaurant but his pay was not “not sufficient”. The two younger brothers, one of whom was a drug addict, now live in makeshift shacks nearby.

It was also the stigma that prevented her parents from getting proper treatment. We had to hide. “If they had taken their treatment well, one of them would still be alive”wants to believe the rapper.

“No identity papers”

Other AIDS orphans also have to fight to get papers. Nonhlanhla Mazaleni, who runs a shelter in Johannesburg’s west, says she takes care of “21 young people living with HIV and without identity papers” because they were abandoned by their extended family.

“I have a small, blind, that we welcomed at the age of 2 years. He’s now 24, no job, and can’t apply for welfare because he has no papers.”she illustrates.

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Ndumiso has recently become a father. A gray cradle is next to her bed, a foam mattress on the floor. He proudly shows AFP his latest clip on his computer, beating time with his head. He is also looking for work, but without a diploma, it’s complicated. If AIDS hadn’t killed his father, he would have “had opportunities”wants to believe the melancholic young man. “Life wouldn’t be like this”.

The World with AFP