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South Africa | John: a loving family

John grew up in Cape Town after his family left Malawi. He values the close relationship formed with his parents during his childhood:”I wish many children would have such a relationship with their parents”.

His wife – with whom he had his only child – died after a long-term illness with tuberculosis. John himself was diagnosed with HIV during treatment for TB in 2001. He first disclosed his status to his sister and”felt relieved, you know, at least someone knows it within my family”.

John was encouraged to join Khululeka by existing members, attracted because it was only for men: “It’s where you can speak freely about anything under the sun pertaining to men”. With the group he helps raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. His priority is for the infection rate to go down: “I’d like people to practice safe sex”.

I grew up in Guguletu. I left school at a young age, aiming to go work. I am originally from Malawi, but my parents migrated to South Africa, Cape Town to be exact. So that’s where I grew up mostly. Now I’m in my thirties.

Both my parents have passed on but I grew up living with them. I have four brothers and three sisters; with me we are eight. We have a wonderful relationship, mostly respect, understanding and trust. My parents… it was a wonderful relationship that we had, and I wish many children would have such a relationship with their parents, because it’s uplifting and wise to be a child growing up with your parents present, both of them.

During my childhood, I was never one for games; my personal favourite activity was reading. But going to school wasn’t that wonderful because I was not someone to write. You know – sitting with a pen – I couldn’t wait for a period to pass, or to get out of the classroom. I never liked homework; when I got out of school I would change into my playing clothes and get away. I went as far as Standard 6, but it’s true I never liked school that much.

Jobs and responsibilities

I got my first job… in 1987 at Simba chips, the fast food company, that’s where I worked. Ya. The first day at my job, I was excited because of knowing I would get my first wages [laughs].

I mostly like to work night shifts you know; working dayshift was not my kind of scene. Anyway I worked, and I most definitely pushed to work the night shift, but I had to work one week day shift and one nights. So I couldn’t wait for the day shift to pass!

When I started work I already had a child. The child was about six years old. So me and my mother came up to an understanding that one week I would give her my wages and one week they could be mine. So that’s what we came to agree upon and it worked.

I have been unemployed and I felt bad, because I couldn’t provide you know… as a man with a family – my girlfriend, my child – I had to provide for them at the same time as looking after my mother. I had to make ends meet.

Relationships

My first relationship was with a girl… in the street. The girl came to visit her aunt, that’s how I met her, we spoke and she asked me to accompany her to the station. I had a chance to talk to her about my feelings towards her, that’s how we started out with a friendship, it grew and we became lovers.

When that relationship passed I became involved with another lady and we had a child. As time went on… the boy grew up and the mother fell ill. I didn’t know that she had had tuberculosis [TB] before we met. She passed away.

And this second relationship, this lady I got married to… we had been living together for six years. She got terminally ill. We were like one year married, you know, and the boy was three at that time. When his mother passed away, I had to make… other arrangements for me to survive. I don’t have any other children; I have
only the one.

Sharing diagnosis

2001, the fifth month of that year – that’s when I learnt that I am living with the virus, and it really shocked my world – I never expected it to happen to me. I was lying in hospital, with TB – that’s where I requested to be tested for all kinds of illness, and that’s where I found out that I had HIV.

The first person I told was my sister. She was the one who came and visited me at the hospital, and since she came I thought it would only be wise to tell her. I thought, me and my sister, we’re close and I could share anything with her – that’s why I chose to tell her.

After I told her, she looked at me and said, I knew. But what astounded me was how did you know – when I haven’t spoken anything with you? She told me that she could see, before I became ill, she could see that there was something wrong with me.

I felt relieved you know, at least someone knows it within my family, that how I felt – relieved. My life changed in a sense… I had to make adjustments you know, to the way I lived before and adapt to a new lifestyle. It wasn’t easy, but I would say it was worth it.

Social movements; the attraction of a men-only group

I am involved in a social movement, it’s the men-only support group called Khululeka. We socialise and learn about how we live with the disease called HIV. As you go on you learn things, and I’m glad I’m in a social movement – it has uplifted my spirit, [provided a place] where I can express myself as to how I was at the beginning, knowing my status.

I have been into a group before. The difference between the previous social movement and the one I’m with now is that the previous one was male and female together and we tried out our differences, our problems and so forth.

But Khululeka is a support group of its own, you know. The uniqueness about Khululeka for me personally is that it’s male only. It’s where you can speak freely about anything under the sun pertaining to men; where you don’t have to look over your shoulder wondering if there would be any women around.

Playing a role in Khululeka

I became a member of Khululeka… about the time it was established, in September 2005. I joined because it was the men-only support group. I was visited one time by Phumzile, he came with Lizo to my place; Lizo kept on telling me about those guys who are recruiting men. I was still with Sakhela support group, but when I heard about Khululeka I shifted.

[I don’t have a specific role] as yet but I’m hoping there will be. I see myself playing a part when the time is right, you know. I think that I may play a part in the slot with Bush radio. We will have discussions, topics pertaining to the HIV virus – letting the masses know that the men’s support group is here and it wants to reach out to more men who are living with a disease but who aren’t free to talk about it.

I wouldn’t say my life has changed, but it has made a difference joining the movement. You know in a sense that I feel relieved that as a Khululeka support group member I can interact with males. All I can say is that as time goes on I will get a grip on reality. Khululeka is there for a purpose in my life you know, and what a social movement can do…

Communication within and outside the group

The group is quite open. Ya, we communicate easily. Mostly social issues, things we are facing at home, in the community… we can speak about anything. Anyone chosen to speak on behalf of the group can do that. I have. Oh… we had an open air education once at Nyanga Junction where we were speaking about HIV and AIDS and as an individual you have to speak your mind on what you feel and what you know. That’s how I came to speak about what was happening within my life.

I would say as we move around a lot, people see us. We have T-shirts with the Khululeka name on it, and people who are interested approach us and ask us what we are all about and what we stand for. And then we explain and that’s how people come to join us and so on.

We are beginning to have media people coming on board and work with us as a group. The media plays a big role, of course, and with the influence they can have upon our group, it will be helpful for us if the media becomes involved. It can motivate us by giving us more exposure, for there are so many people, especially the males, who are quite ignorant about the fact that HIV exists.

‘We’re fighting HIV and AIDS through awareness’

The focus of the group is men who do not know their status and who want to know. They can get tested when they come to the Khululeka group for support and, knowing their status, they will get support from Khululeka.

My own objective for Khululeka is to advise the community about protection first because HIV and AIDS is real. We’re fighting HIV and AIDS through awareness; we give teachings about the pandemic… to help people who do not know about the virus to protect themselves. I’d like people to practise safe sex.

Hope for the future

My hope for the future is to see the rate of infections going down – Ya – and people being more aware of what is happening about HIV and AIDS. I personally would say that… in a household where you know that you are HIV positive but a family member does not know – I suggest that you speak about it in the household. Tell your family about it, show them that you care about them being careful not to contract the disease. But all in all – it is an individual thing, you know.

This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim throughout has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections. Extracts from these interviews also appear under the key topics; these extracts pull together relevant comments and in a few cases include sentences that have been re-ordered or cut from the edits.

Project

South Africa | John: a loving family is produced as part of the Speaking freely on HIV oral testimony project.

Testimonies

South Africa | Gerald: sharing the burden

South Africa | Jo-Ann: joining the struggle

South Africa | John: a loving family

South Africa | Nomafu: encouraging others

South Africa | Patrick: beauty in equality

South Africa | Sylvia: anger to acceptance

Namibia | CJ: fulfilling our potential

Namibia | Karolina: bringing me peace

Namibia | Jeni: leaving stigma behind

Namibia | Maria: information is essential

Key themes

Introduction to the project

Hopes and visions

Challenging the government

Working with the media

Support through community

Why join… or start a movement?

Living with HIV

Gender dimensions

Identity, culture and context