Feature story

Breaking the conspiracy of silence

22 January 2013

UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé, shares a moment with Florence Ngoqo, left, and Thabang Lebese’s 101-year-old maternal grandmother, right.
Credit: UNAIDS/M.Safodien

Thabang Lebese was a little boy who grew up in Orlando East, Soweto. From an early age he could kick a ball—dazzling his family with his talent on the pitch. It didn’t take long before he was given the opportunity to join one of the major football clubs in South Africa and by the age 15 he was playing for the Kaizer Chiefs’ junior team.

Thabang played 279 Premier Soccer League (PSL) games in his 13-year long career. He was one of a handful of players to have played for the big teams: Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Moroko Swallows. He was a much-loved and celebrated player and people today still remember him for his trademark victory dance after scoring a goal.

Then, in early February 2012, Thabang was admitted to Helen Joseph Hospital complaining of a ‘stiff neck and terrible headache’. Days later—on 12 February 2012—he died. Two weeks after his death his family publicly disclosed that Thabang had died of an AIDS-related illness.

“By doing so we wanted to stop the gossip and the whispering. We wanted people to know so that there could be no speculation about why Thabang had died,” said Thabang’s aunt and family spokesperson, Naomi Lebese.

His family said that Thabang lived in silence and suffered alone, with only a few friends knowing the truth but didn’t know how to help him. He wanted to disclose his status but had left it too late.

“Thabang was too afraid to come out publicly and disclose his HIV status,” said Mabalane Mfundisi, director of Show Me Your Number, the HIV prevention programme of the South African Football Players Union. “I think soccer stars have a harder time disclosing their status than ordinary people precisely because the fall from grace is so much harder. The pressure on a football player to be perfect, to perform, is immense—after so much public scrutiny, it is hard to admit being a mere mortal.”

“We need everyone to know that if you are diagnosed with HIV, you are not alone and there is a lot of support available to you including life-saving HIV treatment,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.

It is very important to break the conspiracy of silence that exists around HIV

UNAIDS Executive Director, Mr Michel Sidibé

Thabang’s story shows that despite an ambitious AIDS programme, HIV-related stigma is still pervasive in South African communities.

UNAIDS, Show Me Your Number, the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) and Thabang’s family have teamed up to produce a public service announcement sharing Thabang’s story to highlight issues around HIV stigma, silence and secrecy. The announcement coincided with the start Africa Cup of Nations 2013 which is being hosted in South Africa between 19 January and 10 February.

“It is very important to break the conspiracy of silence that exists around HIV,” said Mr Sidibé. “This is what the Lebese family have done and by doing so, they will save lives,” he added.

“We believe that we can use Thabang’s story to help other people in the same situation”, said Thabang’s mother, Florence Ngoqo. “We hope that people who see the message and will reach out to their loved ones for help and speak out about their status. People need to speak out and communities need to stop living in denial.”