When Sibongile Tshabalala met Andrew Mosane in 2009 after joining the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) she knew theirs would be a special friendship. “The first time I saw him, we were doing a treatment literacy session. My first impression when I saw him was he was that guy who is friendly, very informative and a very playful person. So I just fell in love with this guy, in a way like, ‘I am going to learn a lot from this guy’. From that day, that’s where our friendship started. We became friends from that day, until the end.”
The end came on 15 January 2021, when Mosane, a respected HIV/Aids activist, died at the age of 45. “I will always miss him because he was that dear friend,” said Tshabalala, who is currently the TAC’s national chairperson. “He was like a brother to me … We were … very close … He knew my family … He was an uncle and an aunt to my children. Because he was gay, he used to call himself ‘uncle-aunt Andrew’ to my children. My children were very close to him.”
Mosane joined the TAC in 2003, starting as a treatment literacy practitioner and moving on to becoming a national trainer and capacity-building officer. He later served as the organisation’s national sector representative for people living with HIV and served on its board of directors.
Mosane was also a fierce proponent of national health insurance, a fighter for the rights of sex workers and passionate about raising awareness about tuberculosis (TB), tirelessly “[supporting] the call being made to declare TB a national health emergency”.
His death left many activists reeling.
In a statement issued by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS), Mosane was described as “feisty, dedicated, chaotic, lovely, unwavering and passionate”. It also hailed him as “one of [South Africa’s] most gutsy social justice and Aids activists … who brought the voice of marginalised people and communities to the centre of the Aids response”.
“He was known to many in South Africa and around the world as a tireless advocate for human rights,” the statement read. “An openly gay Black man living with HIV, Mr Mosane experienced stigma and discrimination, yet he worked tirelessly to address the many challenges facing people living with HIV. Activism was in his blood and he naturally weaved into this the politics of race, class and gender. As part of the Civil Society Forum of the South African National Aids Council [Sanac], he represented the sectors of people living with HIV, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and sex workers.”
Mbulawa Mugabe, the UNAIDS country director for South Africa, added: “He had strong facilitation skills that were honed in the trenches of the Treatment Action Campaign treatment literacy programme – an organisation he proudly led and worked for. His talent to make scientific information accessible to communities was the hallmark of his advocacy, and that will be missed. We have lost a giant in social justice and the Aids movement who touched the lives of so many.”
A statement issued by Sanac hailed the activist as “a humanist … a gallant fighter, an educator, an activist, a friend”.
Steve Letsike, co-chairperson of Sanac, added: “He made his presence felt. His contributions were incisive. He was a dependable activist ready and able to champion the cause of people living with HIV and TB and he carried all sectors with him. He was an educator par excellence. Tsela tshweu (go well), Druza.”
Taking to Facebook, activist Mark Heywood wrote: “RIP Andrew Mosane. You were queer as fuck, mad as a march hatter, outrageous, ostentatious, brave, difficult, unrelenting, an activist with strengths and weaknesses on show. Often at the same time. You’ve been part of my TAC landscape for as long as I remember. You christened me Jabulani and made fun of me. You survived HIV, TB, MDR-TB, depression. It’s hard to think that you go now. Thanks for the ride and for all you did to save many lives and give people confidence and dignity [while] always making fun if you could. Your story will be told.”
Focus on mental health
In a tribute to Mosane, Tshabalala, along with the TAC general secretary Anele Yawa, wrote that Mosane did not, as might be presumed, die of Covid-19, but that “he will become part of the death statistics during this very sad and complex time in the world, where now more than ever we need passionate activists”.
Tshabalala said it was in part as a result of the toll of activism that Mosane died when he did.
“The challenge with uComrade Andrew was issues of treatment fatigue. Because, between me and him talking to each other, we always fought about it. He had treatment fatigue. And we don’t have psychological support – especially in the public sector – for people living with HIV who are taking treatment for a very long time [and also dealing] with other challenges of life that we are facing. So, as much as we tried to support uComrade Andrew, it was difficult. Because that thing was eating him. And it made him not … take his treatment properly,” Tshabalala said.
“But what I want to say is that, most [activists], when we suffer from treatment fatigue and other mental health issues like that, because the community and people see us as strong, nobody understands what you are going through as an individual at that time. And it is difficult to go to the next person and say, ‘This is what I am suffering from.’ Because you are seen as this person who knows everything … It is difficult to reach out, because everybody expects you to excel because you have information. You see?”
For Tshabalala, Mosane’s death should place the often-neglected needs of activists in the spotlight. “The lesson that we need to learn from what has happened in his life, up until the end of his life, is that mental health issues are really serious … And that they can affect everyone and anyone – irrespective of how much knowledge or education you have … I think as social justice activists, we need to start now focusing on issues of mental health more than ever.”
Mabalane Mfundisi is the executive director of the HIV/Aids and TB organisation Show Me Your Number. “One thing I’ve learnt from Andrew,” he said, “is that it doesn’t cost a cent to be a human being. It doesn’t cost a cent to part of humanity. That was Andrew. Andrew had a plan to make this a better world. And the only way to honour his legacy is to ensure that those who are left behind continue on that journey by immortalising his spirit.”
To this end, Mfundisi added, the organisation’s planned legal aid clinic will, upon completion, be named after Mosane.
Tshabalala said the TAC will also be keeping Mosane’s memory alive by renaming its branch in Mabopane, where he was born and raised, in honour of him.
Despite these attempts at keeping Mosane’s name alive, Tshabalala added: “The life of uAndrew, the activism and the commitment that he has given to community and social justice movements … he has given us enough. Although we won’t feel like it’s enough, because you won’t get enough of an individual [like that]. However, he has given us all that we are supposed to get. He has played his part.
“It’s difficult to let him go, but,” she said, “I think we have to let him go.”