Courage in the Face of Stigma: The Story of Gugu Dlamini by Dan Hougendobler

Reading Prof. Niehaus’s article about the stigma of HIV/AIDS in the South African Lowveld reminded me of another story I heard while in South Africa.  It highlights the tremendous suffering and horrific violence that can result from the stigma and fear surrounding HIV/AIDS.  However, I wanted to share the story not because it confirms something we all know (stigma and hatred are bad), but rather because it demonstrates how courageous people who stand up in the face of stigma can become catalysts for changing an entire culture.  The story is taken primarily from interviews conducted by Beat It!, which are available here.

The story took place in 1998.  Gugu Dlamini was an HIV-positive young mother who lived in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal.  When interviewed by a local Zulu-language radio station, she bravely confirmed her HIV-status.  As a result of her disclosure, she endured a great deal of overt harassment.  Her mother reported, “She’d keep on phoning and coming to tell me [about the threats]; she cried.  She said the people they come, they threaten me.”  Her boyfriend confirmed the stigmatization, recalling that some people did not even “want her to touch them or to drink together with them.”

On December 12, 1998, what had been verbal harassment, and other forms of stigmatization, became even more serious.  After a campaign workshop, a man came up to her and punched her and threatened to return.  The assault was reported to the police, but they apparently did nothing to help her. 

Later that night, she was attacked again.  This time she was beaten, stoned, and stabbed until she lost consciousness.  One of her attackers then sent her boyfriend a text message which said, “you can come and fetch your dog; we are done with her.”  She was taken to a hospital where she died.  She left behind a 13-year old daughter.

However, Ms. Dlamini’s story didn’t end with her death.  News of her brutal murder swept through South Africa, inspiring protests and bringing the scourge of discrimination to the forefront in the minds of many living in South Africa and around the world.  The Treatment Action Campaign’s famous “HIV Positive” slogan, seen on activists’ t-shirts, was developed as a response to Ms. Dlamini’s death. 

News of her death also moved Edwin Cameron, a South African judge, to become the first South African official to publicly declare his HIV-positive status.  Mr. Cameron now sits on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, arguably the most prestigious judicial position in the country.

I would draw several lessons from this tragic story.  First, stigma and harassment are not “just” psychological afflictions for those living with HIV/AIDS.  The line between verbal and psychological abuse and outright assault and even murder is much too fine.  Increasing understanding of those living with HIV/AIDS is therefore a critically important public safety issue.  Second, and most importantly, I think Ms. Dlamini’s story demonstrates the power that a single individual has to shake a society out of its complacency and bring underlying issues of stigma and discrimination to the fore.  Much of our reading for this week deals with the power of celebrity disclosure, but Ms. Dlamini was not a celebrity before her death.  She was simply an ordinary worker, mother, and daughter who happened to be HIV-positive.  What made her extraordinary was her courage in the face of stigma and the tragic results of her decision to stand up in the face of a hostile society and declare that she wasn’t ashamed.

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