Covid-19 revives memories of Aids pandemic

An elderly nurse who specialised in community-based HIV care for decades says a coronavirus-stricken society needs practical responses that have compassion at their core.

Fighting back tears, 90-year-old Sabbath Mlambo scrunches her lively eyes and gulps before she lets out a self-conscious giggle. Taking a deep breath, she makes a discernible effort to become her cheerful self again. “Oh,” she sighs, “all those thank yous.”

Mlambo is reminiscing over moments of gratitude she received from people with HIV and Aids, often those who were on their deathbed. It feels as if they are embroidered on her heart, she says. “I will never forget them.”

When the Aids scourge hit South Africa and started receiving more widespread attention, Mlambo, an experienced nurse working in Durban, was among the first to respond “to this new disease”. That was just over three decades ago, and in the intervening years she has become known in her community and beyond as a champion and carer of the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable, including orphans. 

Until about six years ago, when she finally stopped working, Mlambo drove herself to the St Clement’s Home-Based Care Project, located not far from her home in the Durban suburb of New Germany. A community project run by the Catholic Church, it takes its motto from an appeal in the Bible to “feed the hungry, clothe the needy and care for the sick”, and provides facilities for training as well as space for a vegetable garden, among other services. 

Now in the twilight of her life, Mlambo spends her days at home propped up in an armchair. She’s frail, wears mittens because of arthritis, and reminds you that her hearing is failing. But her mental faculties are fine. 

Nurturing as a calling

Mlambo is the matriarch of a big family, which includes her famous daughter, former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is now an undersecretary general for women at the United Nations. Mlambo and her youngest sister were raised by her Anglican priest father and her elder siblings, rooting her life in the church and good works.

The Covid-19 pandemic of today has many similarities to the Aids one that she saw and experienced first-hand, especially the stigma and fear that characterise many in society’s response. When Aids first ravaged the population, Mlambo didn’t know how to cope emotionally, but today she has this advice for health and care workers: “You have to pretend you have nerves of steel, even if you don’t.” 

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Mlambo’s path with often destitute Aids patients started when she quit her job as a nurse with the then Durban health department. Although she loved it, she left it because of “an odd feeling” and a “calling” she cannot describe, even today. She didn’t know what she was going to do and her husband thought she was crazy. 

Soon after she quit, her former colleague, Sister Liz Towell, called to say she had started an Aids outreach service based on experience she had gleaned in Zimbabwe. Towell  knew a lot about HIV infection, prevention and treatment. “She trained us as trainers, to train members of the community,” says Mlambo.

The late archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley, asked them to form an Aids care committee, and this led to weekly visits to people in areas such as KwaDabeka, Clermont, Hammarsdale, Inchanga, Shongweni and Dassenhoek. Hurley, who publicly supported the use of condoms to stem the spread of HIV, had befriended Mlambo through her charity work. When they started working with Aids patients, the disease was already having a devastating impact.

Through visits to sick and dying church members, the parish priest of St Clement’s in KwaDabeka, Michael Sibeko, had identified a number of people whom he suspected of having Aids. Most were living in abject poverty: jobless, starving and, in many cases, spurned because of their illness. 

Formalising and organising

Sibeko harnessed Mlambo’s help in setting up the home-based care project, and she left her training with Towell to focus on it. The late  Zola Skweyiya, then the minister of social development, heard what they were doing at St Clements and encouraged the church to formalise its non-profit organisation in order to receive funding. Mlambo set up an office in the parish complex and a management board was put in place. 

She and two caregivers worked in the areas around Clermont, especially the informal settlements where most of the sick people were. “That’s where the real work started,” says Mlambo. “We took people to the local clinics, gave out food parcels and had to get more staff as the workload increased.”  

According to Mlambo, Aids was unlike anything she had ever seen. She remembers visiting people who were abandoned. They looked like stick figures, huddled beneath blankets. She wasn’t sure if they would survive from one day to the next.

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“I used to come home and make myself a cup of tea and sit down. But it seemed wrong. I have all this, I thought to myself, and others have nothing. People were poor. They were starving. My family said I was getting emotionally involved. But, you have to keep hope bigger.” 

Mlambo says donations of cash and kind poured in and most of the sick received care. St Clements became the talk of the neighbourhood, its work characterised by slick organisation, but mostly by kindness. The project’s caregivers still deliver food parcels and Mlambo still leverages her influential network. Before lockdown, she says, people shipped boxes of clothes to her. They trust the church because they know donations won’t “end up in somebody’s pocket”.

Responding to material and emotional needs

Mlambo’s reach has been extraordinary. She has organised contributions for a range of goodwill projects and has personally ensured that several children from impoverished homes have been educated – some as doctors, engineers and accountants.

Zenzo Nxele and his sister Nosipho are among them. Nxele has a postgraduate degree in accounting and works for a big auditing firm. His sister is due to complete her medical degree this year. In 1999, their family fell on hard times when their father was retrenched. Nxele struggles to keep his emotion in check talking about Mlambo.

“We spent a month in hunger. It was extreme poverty. I can’t begin to describe the huge power of Gogo Mlambo. I have had 20 years to think about how she helped us and it’s unbelievable. She was a mother to the community of Clermont.”

Nxele says not only did Mlambo secure them bursaries, but she saw to it they were fed and counselled. “She’s an example of being a good human. It is an example of how I want to impact the people around me in my life. She helped us but without belittling us. She treated us like family. Her empathy improved our will and our self-esteem. We never felt like a charity case. She is like my blood family now.”

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Effective social help demands good organisational skills. There’s also a no-nonsense element required that Mlambo clearly displays. But, she says, don’t make the mistake of thinking you know what is best for people. Empathy requires that you find out what people need, “not what you think they need”. 

She tells the story of a woman whom she came across in Chesterville at the height of the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal. The woman was destitute and shell-shocked by the murder of her husband and the loss of her children. The last thing she could remember was attending her husband’s burial. She had taken refuge in a building and was found malnourished and sick. 

“She had maggots in a hole in her back. She was starving,” says Mlambo, who washed and fed the woman and got her to a hospital. She recovered, though not completely, and died a few months later. But at least it was with some dignity and having recovered her sanity, and in her dying moments she kept asking the nurses to thank Mlambo for helping her.

“She remembered me in her last moments,” says Mlambo. The encounter explains her counsel to others: “Love people. Love them when they have nothing.” 

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