Nompilo Xaba: Unofficial ambassador

Nompilo Xaba had never left her South African township - until now. Clare Rudebeck finds out why Gordon Brown and Bob Geldof are queuing up to hear what she has to say
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The Independent Online

Nompilo Xaba is wearing a very large polo neck. Sitting in the offices of BBC Radio Five Live with eager news hounds bustling around her, she seems perfectly at home. 24 hours earlier she left South Africa for the first time in her life. "It's so cold," she says, "but if everyone here can survive these temperatures, so can I."

Nompilo Xaba is wearing a very large polo neck. Sitting in the offices of BBC Radio Five Live with eager news hounds bustling around her, she seems perfectly at home. 24 hours earlier she left South Africa for the first time in her life. "It's so cold," she says, "but if everyone here can survive these temperatures, so can I."

She is not here to talk about the weather. After a few pleasantries, she politely reminds me of the purpose of her trip: to tell our political elite to do more to tackle the African Aids epidemic. "People are dying," she says in her soft, insistent voice. "I attend funerals every weekend. When will it come to an end?"

This week, Xaba has the kind of access usually reserved for world leaders and A-list celebrities. Meetings with Gordon Brown, Bob Geldof and Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, are all on the schedule. When I meet her, she is fresh from the week's first appointment: being interviewed on the Five Live breakfast show.

Zaba is a 36-year-old single mother and HIV/Aids counsellor from Umlazi, South Africa's second largest township, where 40 per cent of the population are infected with the virus. She has no media training or previous experience of hob-nobbing with the powerful. But minutes after broadcasting live on national radio for the first time, she is unfazed by the week to come. "I'm not nervous," she says, sipping a cappuccino. She has the calm self-assurance of someone who knows that what she has to say is something that needs to be heard.

The culmination of her trip will be the publication of the Commission for Africa's report on Friday. Launched a year ago by Tony Blair and Bob Geldof, the Commission will publish its recommendations for building a "strong and prosperous Africa". Xaba is optimistic about what it can achieve, but cautiously so. "It is difficult to say how much it will help us," she says, "because people like to preach what they can't practise."

During her whirlwind of meetings, Xaba will try to communicate what it is like to live in a country where five million people - or one in five adults - have HIV or Aids. It is a grim picture, belied by Xaba's smiling, youthful face. In Umlazi, the graveyards are already full and burial plots are being recycled. "People are being buried on top of their parents," says Xaba, "and we are now having to use cemeteries outside the township, towards Durban."

Her social life is a constant round of funerals. "I go to a funeral almost every weekend," she says. "Many of my friends and relatives have died and now the whole community is starting to feel the effects. There are many orphans and not enough money to send them all to school." Families of ten people, with no wage earners, are surviving on grants of 700 rand (£62) per month.

Premature deaths in South Africa have risen 57 per cent in the last five years, largely due to Aids, according to South African government figures. Yet the government has been slow to act, with Thabo Mbeki, the country's president, who has continued to question the link between HIV and Aids.

This denial permeates the whole of South African society. "My 25-year-old nephew is HIV positive," says Xaba. "When I found out I said to him, 'Do you know what this means?' But he didn't want to know. He said he didn't want any treatment. He doesn't have any symptoms yet so the reality of having the disease hasn't hit him." Talking about Aids is still taboo in Umlazi. Every weekend there are more and more funerals, but the mourners do not discuss why the deceased passed away.

"People who come to me for counselling often believe that they have been bewitched," says Xaba, "or they will avoid telling me their status. I have to pick it up during the conversation." In this context, Nelson Mandela's admission in January that his last surviving son, Makgatho, had died of Aids, was nothing short of revolutionary. Xaba calls it a "wake up call for South Africa." Asked what she thinks of Mbeki's response to the Aids crisis, she pauses for a long time. "I love my president," she says, "but when it comes to Aids, he drives me insane."

Xaba went for an HIV test herself a few years ago. "It was a very traumatic time," she says. "I sat in the waiting room thinking, 'Oh my God. What if I am positive?' but, luckily, it came back negative." She has two daughters, Sinenjabulo (meaning "happiness"), 17, and Meme, 6, who she lives with in Umlazi, along with her mother and five sisters. She says she is totally open with her children about the risks of catching HIV. More than 60 per cent of South Africa's new infections occur in under-25s.

Once infected, the outlook is bleak. In Britain, where anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are available to all, Aids deaths have plummeted in the last five years. In South Africa, the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was recently forced to admit that the government had managed to treat only 28,000 to 31,000 Aids patients with ARVs. At the weekend, the government announced that seven international pharmaceutical firms had been hired to help deliver these drugs in state hospitals - a welcome sign that it is now taking the crisis seriously.

In the meantime, those living with HIV must wait until they start developing Aids before they can get treatment. "I have a friend who is HIV positive, who hasn't been able to get the drugs she needs, even though she is now eligible, because there aren't enough to go round," says Xaba. "People who are sick, who are developing Aids, are being told to come back in six months time."

What can developed countries, such as Britain, do to help? "We need funding for drugs, for hospitals and for hospices," says Xaba. "The world needs to face up to these challenges. And South Africans need to be realistic about what is happening in their country."

Will Brown and Benn listen to her? She doesn't know yet, but she is determined. Born in the Umlazi township when South Africa was deep in the apartheid era, she has made it her business to succeed against the odds. When she left school at 16, she was already pregnant with her first daughter, but didn't let it stop her training in public administration.

Four years later, she took a job as a bank clerk in Amanzimtoti, a predominantly Afrikaans town. She was the bank's the only black employee and customers repeatedly complained about her, but she refused to bow to discrimination. When her manager called her into his office to discuss the problems, she told him, "If you could change the colour of my skin, these problems would go away". Her boss had no answer for her. This week, she will confront our leaders with some uncomfortable realities, hopefully this time she will get a response.

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