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South Africa

South African AIDS youth activist Thembi Ngubane dies at 24

UNICEF Image: Thembi Ngubane
© Thembi Ngubane/2009
Thembi Ngubane was a tireless advocate for people living with AIDS.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, 12 June 2009 – AIDS activist and Digital Diarist Thembi Ngubane died last Thursday at the age of 24. Thembi was a uniquely positive force and a tireless campaigner for people living with HIV. Her funeral will take place in South Africa tomorrow.

AUDIO: Listen now

In 2006, Joe Richman – a producer with the Radio Diaries project of National Public Radio in the US – encouraged Thembi to describe her life with HIV in the form of a diary on the NPR programme, 'All Things Considered'. Through her diaries, Thembi shared all she had learned about coping with HIV in her daily life in an open, gentle and humorous manner, offering hope and support to thousands of people affected by HIV and AIDS.

Thembi also spoke about living with HIV in South Africa during a visit to UNICEF headquarters in New York in 2006. In fact, UNICEF was lucky enough to have Thembi's support for several initiatives over the last few years.

Film shot in India

In 2007, she travelled to India to work with UNICEF on the documentary film, ‘Love (and Babies) in the Time of AIDS’. The film tells relates the struggles and hopes of young women living with the virus in different countries, oceans apart.

UNICEF Image: Thembi Ngubane
© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1376/ Pirozzi
Thembi Ngubane and her boyfriend Melikhaya Mpumela stand with their daughter outside Thembi's home in the township of Khayelitsa in Cape Town, South Africa.

During the trip to India, Thembi told a UNICEF staff member: “AIDS is not going to get me down. There are a lot of things I want to do. I am just going to get on with my life.”

In 2007, she presented the issue of HIV/AIDS to young people attending the Junior 8 Summit in Germany, most of whom had never met anyone living with HIV. She spoke without a script, straight from her heart, and was captivating and unforgettable.

'Thembi, we heard you'

Joe Richman described her in a message to Radio Diaries’ supporters:

“Thembi thought about death almost every day. Yet she was the most alive person I've ever met. She sometimes asked me why I chose her to do an audio diary about her life. But I feel like she chose me.

“Thembi gave me, and many of us, a lesson in courage and in embracing the craziness of life – good and bad. She was brave and open about living with AIDS at a time when most South Africans were quiet about the epidemic. She thought the virus should be scared of her, rather than the other way around. She drew pictures of her virus. She talked to it in the mirror. She gave it orders. Thembi had a short life. But it was a full one by any measure. She had a child. She found a soul mate in her long-time boyfriend, Melikhaya.

“By now, we are all so familiar with the statistics. More than 5,000 people die every day from AIDS. Somehow, it never seemed Thembi would be one of them. Thembi embodied great ambition to be heard and seen. She thought it was important to speak out against stigma and discrimination. But she was also motivated by fear: she didn't want to be anonymous, or forgotten.

“Thembi, we heard you. And we miss you.”




April 2006:
UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny reports on Thembi Ngubane’s 2006 visit to UNICEF’s Danny Kaye Centre, her radio diary and her AIDS awareness tour.
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