Rest in Peace and in Power: Remembering HIV Activism Pioneer Prudence Mabele

Contributing Editor

I believe that the quality of women's leadership is even more important than the numbers of women in leadership. In my own life, and in the training and empowerment work that I do, I try to make the point that leaders need to live their beliefs, and to be fair and accountable.

Our society is still framed by patriarchal power. ... Most of our resources are still controlled by men, and "culture" is still used as an excuse to perpetuate oppression. I am a feminist because I challenge these norms.

-- Prudence Mabele, African Feminist Forum

Prudence Mabele
Prudence Mabele

Prudence Mabele, a veteran, pioneer and guiding light in activism for people living with HIV across the globe, passed away on July 10 in her native South Africa. Her death was reportedly due to complications related to tuberculosis (TB). She was just two weeks shy of her 46th birthday.

"Prudence was a trailblazer, a strong, fierce and beloved activist and mentor to many people living with HIV and those in the HIV/AIDS and TB human rights movements," the Global Network of People Living With HIV (GNP+) said in a statement. "[S]he gave courage to people living with HIV worldwide for more than 25 years and through her constant engagement in the struggle to make decent services and HIV treatment accessible for everyone who needed it."

Mabele's was a life spent building power in her communities. That journey began in 1992 when, two years after her HIV diagnosis at age 18, she became one of the first black women in South Africa to publicly disclose her HIV status.

"She said she disclosed her status because she was tired of the silence and stigma surrounding HIV," read a press release by Southern African advocacy group Sonke Gender Justice on Tuesday. "She wanted to set a precedent and encourage other women living with HIV to discuss their status with loved ones, to live without shame, to seek treatment and to lead happy and fulfilled lives."

To this end, Mabele started South Africa's Positive Women's Network (PWN) in 1996 and remained its director throughout her life. She was also the president of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa, and a co-founder of National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS (NAPWA) -- South Africa.

In 1998, she was a founding member of the groundbreaking Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which fought for, and secured, South Africa's universal HIV treatment program.

Prudence Mabele quote

Years after starting to take HIV meds herself, she received a "calling from the ancestors" and added being a sangoma, or traditional healer, to her suite of community activities. In 2004 she was the main target of a protest by hundreds of traditional healers deriding TAC for touting Western medicine.

"They were saying that [TAC] are more into [antiretrovirals] than their herbs. But that was not the case," Mabele recalled in a 2013 interview with the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. "I am a healer; being on [medical] treatment helps me to stay balanced, it helps me to do all my rituals and it helps me to dance. It makes me feel good."

In the days since Mabele's death, friends, loved ones and colleagues have taken to online media to share their shock and sadness, as well as to pay tribute to her tremendous life. Many posts celebrate Mabele as much for her work as for her unique, effervescent spirit.

"Positive Women's Network - USA (PWN-USA) is also part of Prudence's legacy," said Naina Khanna, PWN-USA's founding executive director, on Facebook. "A few of us were in Nairobi in 2007 at the International Women's Summit on HIV and AIDS and were so inspired by her work and the work of our sisters in South Africa, we came back and started scheming to build our own collective power in the U.S." PWN-USA was founded the following June.

"I remember conspiring and laughing with Prudence at so many international conferences over the years," Khanna shared in an email conversation with "She was fierce, full of stories, and filled with passion. ... She was a true warrior, and I am thankful to have known her."

Sisonke Msimang tells a story about Mabele at The Moth: Global Stories of Women and Girls in New York City in September 2016

"She was affectionate and completely mad," writer Sisonke Msimang wrote in an op-ed for South Africa's Mail & Guardian. Msimang had known Mabele since they were both 20-somethings, navigating "the new South Africa" after apartheid. "Pru was addicted to life," she remembered. "She was the most life-full, life-giving soul."

Mabele played pivotal roles in a number of efforts when the International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) returned to Durban, South Africa, last July. One was the fulfillment of a long-held dream of convening women leaders from across the African diaspora for Women NOW!, the first-ever Pan-African Women's HIV, Sexual Health and Reproductive Justice Summit -- which this author had the privilege of attending. Mabele was a dynamic force, bringing equal exuberance and presence to her speeches from the podium, the warm greetings she bestowed on comrades new and longtime, the spontaneous songs and dances that opened each of the summit's days and the relaxed gatherings that closed several of its nights.

"Women NOW! was a dream for both Pru and me," said Dázon Dixon Diallo, director of SisterLove, a reproductive justice organization with home bases in Atlanta and the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, as well as one of Mabele's co-chairs for the pre-conference event. Women NOW! was the culmination of two decades of connection, collaboration and sisterhood between the two.

"Pru was this combination of brilliance, of being an incredible strategist -- and she loved hard; she told you the truth hard; she laughed loud," Diallo told "Some people would call her quirky, zany, out-of-the-box, kinda nutty -- in ways that would infuriate you and endear you at exactly the same time.

"She brought all of that to Women NOW!, and it was a fantastic, wild crazy ride."

Mabele (far left), with Khanna (second from right) and sister advocates, relaxing in Durban
Mabele (far left), with Khanna (second from right) and sister advocates, relaxing in Durban
Olivia G. Ford

Over and over, recollections and tributes to Mabele tell the story of a woman whose mark on the movements she fought for, the lives she saved and the hearts of those who knew her, is indelible. Their words presage a future that will only be brighter, better, more just because of her existence -- and yet is darker in her absence.