Pledge for Prudence

Mark Heywood paid tribute to AIDS, human rights and gender activist Prudence Mabele who recently passed away – July 19th 2017

My dear friend and comrade Prudence,

Thank you for honoring me as a “friend” to speak at your funeral. You have many beautiful friends and comrades, so I am not sure why I am the one to speak. That is why first I must pay tribute to your better friends and comrades and thank them for the support and love they have shown you during and after life.

Prudence you were an activist, a warrior woman, a woman in a line of activists, many of whom have passed, some of whom are still larger than life. I think of Charlene Wilson, Sarah Hlahlele, Yvette Raphael, Vuyiseka Dubula, Sipho Mthathi, Vovo Gonyela, Anso Thom, Bev Ditsie, Phindi Malaza, Phumi Mtetwa, Sharon Ekambaram to name a few in a long line.

Indeed the best leaders that I know in the response to oppression and violence – of which HIV is just a part — are the women who have risen to fight in solidarity with other women, honest women, incorruptible, self-sacrificing, principled.

Prudence, at your funeral I have to decide whether to speak like you – always principled, brave, bold, sometimes rude or like me, more shy, careful, cautious, scared about speaking truths to power. You seemed never to be scared.

This morning, I will try to be something in between.

Your death on Monday 10 July left me numb. It left me feeling neglectful, wanting. I had suddenly lost someone I loved, (I realize now that I did love you) but whose life and presence I took for granted. Sometimes we activists are so “busy” that we pass each other like ships in the night. But ‘busy’ with what, if we don’t leave time for our friendships?

I feel I did take you for granted, you had been a part of my life since the middle of the 1990s. We in-ed and out-ed conferences together, marched together, mourned together, mobilised together. I remember you in the earliest days of the Positive Women’s Network, of the AIDS Consortium, of TAC.

This week I found a picture of you with Vavi, Zackie Achmat and I celebrating the victory of TAC over the Pharmaceutical Manufactuters’ Association in 2001. If we could excavate my memory I am sure we would find pictures of you when we won over PMTCT; when we protested at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto; when re-established the SA National AIDS Council. Recently I saw a picture of you marching to demand the resignation of Jacob Zuma.

A book should be written about your life. We need to tell your story not just for those who know it, but to those who don’t because it is a story of courage and hope. It is the story of a heroine.

One truth about you Prudence is that you were not a hypocrite. At the time of your death I hear people lament that civil society is divided. People tell us we must “overcome our divisions”, but you never had any truck with that. We were always divided. We are divided against corruption. Against those who are parasitical on the response to AIDS. There are two streams in civil society. Yours is the stream that flows cleanly and clearly.

Two years ago you wrote to me to complain about people who stabbed you in the back. I am sorry that you died still feeling betrayed. You said, “while I was at home sick with PCP and Vertigo … I was removed like Thabo Mbeki, at SCF (SA AIDS Council) A MOTION WAS PASSED and my removal happened, mostly friends nominated each other and without a quorum. You told me that “there’s a lot you do not know that makes me disagree with my chair and because of that I am now victimized.” The people who undermined you now preach unity. But unity means we must be silent about their transgressions.

We will build unity. Yes we will! But it will not be a fake unity. It will be unity with the poor, the marginalized, the violated and discriminated. Unity with sex workers. Unity with the vulnerable. What we won’t do is build unity with thieves and murderers.

Remember one of the oldest slogans of the AIDS movement was “Silence = Death”. Today, once again, there is far too much silence. Once again there is too much death. We have to stop the silence. We have to stop the death.

Prudence, I want to finish my tribute by making a pledge to you. I ask those here to repeat my words to themselves, keeping in mind that we are in a church. This is not a place to lie, even secretly to yourself:

For you, Prudence, we will:

– Ensure that all young women have access to PReP and other ways of protecting themselves in the same way that we fought for Nevirapine for pregnant women with HIV.
– Campaign for resources and political will to stop violence and murder against women and the LGBTQI community.
– Ensure the decriminalization of women who engaged in sex work.

For you, Prudence, we will:
– Never steal
– Never manipulate
– Never deceive or lie
– Never take advantage of AIDS, TB or any other cause of ill health, for our own benefit.

For you, Prudence, we will:
– recognize the inter-sectionality of AIDS with ensuring quality education, employment, and stopping corruption. Fighting AIDS means fighting for human rights and social justice.
– call on our countries’ leaders to wake up again to HIV and TB. It’s not over. It’s not half over.
– Call on Deputy President Ramaphosa and the honest members of the ANC to vote President Zuma out of power on August 8th, because we cannot have a good response to AIDS in a corrupt government.

Prudence, we will remember you for as long as we live. Your life was not in vain.