S. African AIDS activist comes to Philly

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Chrysostomus Boinehelo Matubatuba, the executive head of the office of the mayor of Tshwane in South Africa, visited Philadelphia last week to make plans for a program that will allow South African and American youth to share their experiences with HIV/AIDS.

Matubatuba is working with MEE Productions, a local company that develops communication strategies to combat challenges unique to urban populations, to institute an exchange program where local youth will travel to South Africa to learn about the region’s struggles with HIV/AIDS, and young South African residents who themselves are battling HIV/AIDS will live for a time in Philadelphia to gain a better sense of the local fight against the disease. The youth will film their experiences and compile them in a documentary that will be used to increase awareness about the challenges faced by those in the HIV/AIDS communities of Philadelphia and South Africa.

Matubatuba said he got involved in the HIV/AIDS field when he returned to South Africa in 1990 after studying in the neighboring country of Lesotho.

“I had seen how AIDS had affected communities in Lesotho and other countries like Zambia that were severely affected by the disease, so when I came back, I volunteered at local public-health facilities because I had a desire to help my country and to fight against what we called our second enemy, after apartheid,” he said.

In 1993, Matubatuba founded AIDS and Sexuality Association of Youth Organizations, which connects youth health advocates throughout the country, and of which he still serves as the national convener.

Matubatuba has also worked as the deputy programs director of Adolescent Reproductive Health Services, the national life-skills manager at Planned Parenthood of South Africa, the national project manager at the African Medical Research Foundation and the organizational development liaison officer at Family Health International.

In the mid-’90s, Matubatuba headed the AIDS awareness efforts of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, but he was let go from the position because of his commitment to advocating for the use of condoms during health workshops.

Matubatuba said HIV/AIDS outreach work in South Africa had been stymied over the past two decades because of government dissent.

“In terms of the communities and the civil-society-based organizations, there’s never been any doubt about AIDS. But over the years, there have been denials from the government about the issue,” he said. “There was a time when there was this confusion when the government was saying, ‘Does HIV cause AIDS or is AIDS caused from poverty?’ AIDS-service organizations felt that such mixed messages from the government were undermining their efforts.”

In 2006, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the former health minister of the country, advised that those afflicted with HIV/AIDS follow a diet of garlic, olive oil and lemon to rid themselves of the disease, which caused a backlash from HIV/AIDS advocates around the world. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki was pressured to dismiss Tshabalala-Msimang for her comments but refused; Mbeki did, however, remove deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who advocated that the country follow the health recommendations set out by experts in the field of HIV/AIDS, from her position in August 2007.

Matubatuba said that recently the government has begun to take a more proactive role in the fight against HIV/AIDS — a necessity for the country with the highest prevalence of the disease in the world.

According to UNAIDS, there are currently about 5.7-million South African residents with the disease, which accounts for nearly 11 percent of the entire population.

Matubatuba noted there is evidence that the numbers could be stabilizing, and that the country’s HIV/AIDS-service organizations are attempting to stem the spread of the disease through “a multi-pronged approach with supportive-care counseling, treatment and testing, which is free for people who want to access it through public-health service facilities.”

Matubatuba noted that even though the impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa is more pronounced than in the United States, youth from both continents face many of the same obstacles.

“There are so many similarities between South African youth and youth here in America. They’re dealing with a lot of the same issues. Both countries are still dealing with teen pregnancies and violence and racial issues. And at the end of the day, I think it goes beyond racial inequalities and is an issue of class. Whether it’s the black or white elite, or middle class or the poor people, you find these in both societies.”

Matubatuba said the exchange program is still in the planning stages and was unsure how long it would take to get underway. He met with MEE Productions representatives last weekend to draft the proposal for the program and iron out budgetary and other requirements.

He said when the program does launch, it will allow youth from both countries to better understand the HIV/AIDS crisis and to contribute their own experiences to the fight against the disease.

“We want to take advantage of the similarities they share and see what these youth can lend to one another. I think the young people are ready for this.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].