The story of a woman who rose above circumstances, helped erase a stigma, loved unconditionally and exemplified true success.
We all know that April 1994 was a momentous and liberating event in the history of South Africa. Apartheid fell, old laws crumbled, and decades of blood, sweat and struggle culminated in our first ever democratic election, ushering in the government of our choosing. South Africa rejoiced, and for a few brief years all was rainbows and roses.
Few may now recall the bloody wars that erupted in KwaZulu-Natal and
elsewhere in the four years preceding
our first democratic election. Violence that had simmered for years between the
ANC and the IFP intensified, fuelled largely by the apartheid government’s clandestine
support of the IFP. The National Party’s aim was to create havoc, making the country
appear ungovernable without them. They
set up a ‘third force’ of state
security operatives and funded IFP paramilitaries in their attacks against
civilians and ANC members.
Between 1990 and 1994, hospital wards around the country were filled with the wounded; battle-torn civilians and both ANC and IFP activists were admitted daily, and deaths in hospital were a common occurrence.
At the same time, a less obvious, silent killer stalked hospital corridors – a disease that was only gradually being acknowledged and which killed at a more prolific rate than the political violence – HIV/Aids.
In 1990 an
estimated 74 000 to 120 000 South Africans were living with HIV. Most had no
idea they had the disease, as the subject was taboo. No one talked about it, no one acknowledged it. In 1992 a member
of the apartheid parliament actually stated that the disease might be usefully
harnessed to rid South Africa of its black population. This threat was made potent
by the fact that that the government had already been developing biological weapons
to use against black South Africans.
In the traditionally black hospitals, some CEOs and a handful of head matrons knew the disease by name, and some took action. One of these was Charlotte Mtetwa.
Charlotte was head matron of Themba Hospital in rural Mpumalanga. In the midst of the political mayhem and bloodshed, with her hands already full, she began investigating the circumstances of those diagnosed with HIV. After a full and exhausting day managing wards, she would visit those diagnosed and sent home with HIV/Aids.
What she found was distressing. When a person known to have HIV entered
a home, the householders would throw away everything that person had touched or
eaten from. Family members would confine a sick relative to a hut alone,
pushing food through the doorway, then running. No one wanted to be near a
person with HIV. Fear and ignorance were running rampant.
Charlotte’s official retirement was nearing, but it was clear to her that she would not be entering a life of ease – her work was cut out for her. After retiring, she stepped up her visits to families and individuals affected and infected with HIV/Aids. From her own vegetable garden, she made a nutritious cabbage soup and took it door to door to the homes of the sick. As she fed, bathed and treated the wounds of bedridden patients, she constantly preached a message to family members, ‘Wake up! You can stop this!’
She would call community meetings and convey some truths that now seem so obvious, but which were shrouded in ignorance then: ‘You cannot contract HIV/Aids from helping someone with the disease. Don’t sleep around – this disease is spread through sharing bodily fluids. Wake up! Change your behaviour! Have compassion on those who are sick, and have hope, because we can prevent this from getting worse.’
As is so often the case, the truth fell on deaf ears. Mpumalanga consistently ranked in the top three provinces for HIV/Aids, and the numbers of sick and dying in Charlotte’s own community became unmanageable. To answer the need, she formed an NGO, Phaphamani Home-Based Care. She began writing proposals, requesting food, blankets, medical essentials – anything that would help ease the burden of the desperately sick and suffering around her. Gradually local hospitals took note. Because of her history of service, she was trusted, and doors opened for her. She developed herself, learning as much as she could about the disease. She was invited to speak all over the province, and in 2000 was a finalist in the Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year Award.
In the midst of the scourge, Charlotte’s own son contracted HIV/Aids, having been sick long before he admitted it. She literally brought him back from the jaws of death with around-the-clock nursing. She won that battle – her son lives to this day.
Running an NGO after years of working as a nurse is no mean feat. Charlotte became mother, grandmother, community health worker and businesswoman all in one, managing Phaphamani Home-Based Care and the many who either volunteered or found employment there. Parents from as far as Johannesburg and Piet Retief would send their children to Gogo Charlotte to be nursed during the worst phases of their disease, and months later she would send them home healthy. She was nominated for the Sowetan Woman Nation-builder of the Year, a recognition that fuelled her desire to continue what she was doing. Her life was never about herself; always about others.
When Charlotte passed away in January 2019, she left behind the kind of legacy that implies success in the true sense of the word; not wealth or fame, but the positive difference made in people’s lives.
Phaphamani Home-Based Care now has branches all over the province. Thousands have passed through the doors of these centres, and although not all have returned home healthy, all have found compassion, respect and love within these centres. Charlotte was relentlessly cheerful, encouraging and compassionate. She retired for the second time in 2015, aged 85, but continued to support the work of the centres she started. To the day she died, she said that home support for HIV sufferers in South Africa was still inadequate. The stigma is lower, but not yet eradicated, and behaviour in many areas – amongst rich and poor alike – continues to court the disease. Many die neglected and alone, partly because of an unwillingness to be open about their condition.
Phaphamani Home-Based Care found a supportive partner in Global Hand, a non-profit brokerage organisation that slots NGOs into public/private partnerships. Global Hand recently estimated Phaphamani to be worth between R7 million and R13 million.
Charlotte Mtetwa became a mother to thousands, offering her life in the service of others. She lived by action, not by words alone. This, by standards higher than those many of us currently live by, was a successful life.