On good days Cathrine Thabethe would walk the last stretch home from work at the Ndlovu Clinic in Elandsdoorn and be greeted by a rush of grandchildren tangling around her legs.
Thabethe always had her arms flung wide open in anticipation of eager hugs from the little ones. But on the winter afternoon of 10 July her heart was heavy by the time she reached her RDP house in the Walter Sisulu settlement in Elandsdoorn. It was her last day of full-time employment and it marked the start of an uncertain future for her financial and physical health.
Thabethe is HIV positive. In addition to being employed at the Ndlovu Care Group (NCG) in Elandsdoorn, in the Limpopo province, she was also a patient there and benefited from the state-funded ART programme facilitated by the not for profit medical centre. With the Limpopo Department of Health’s decision not to renew NCG’s contract, she and another 3 773 patients have been transferred to nearby state-run facilities for treatment.
She’s also lost her job as one of 28 people retrenched in July as a result of the state contract ending. On her last day at work she shared a farewell meal with her colleagues. Tears flowed during the short speeches. The mood was intimate and sombre.
“This is not a party, it’s just a way to come together before we have to say goodbye,” was what Ndlovu Care Group human resources manager Poppy Mashamaite said on the day.
Thabethe’s own tears flowed when she remembered how she had come to be part of the Ndlovu Care Group family, and how she came to meet the centre founder and CEO, Dr Hugo Tempelman.
At death’s door
It was 2003 when, with a CD4 count of 1, she arrived at Ndlovu literally at death’s door. She was inflicted with meningitis. She was just 33 years old.
“I slept here for two months. I didn’t do anything, I ate with a pipe (straw), and I couldn’t talk or walk. Doctor T (her name for Tempelman) took care of me and started me on ARVs.
“After I got better Dr T gave me food parcels and food vouchers and sent me to a hospital in Witbank so that I could rest and heal my mind before I came back to Elandsdoorn,” says Thabethe.
Arriving back in Elandsdoorn after two weeks she knew she had to get the younger of her two children to see Tempelman. Her daughter Lungile who was six at the time had been diagnosed with HIV years earlier at the Philadelphia clinic. It was the era of AIDS denialism and zero public access to treatment. She was told plainly her child would die. Her husband and another child had already been lost to the disease.
Tempelman saw Lungile and started her on treatment immediately. Mother and daughter thrived and regularly attended Ndlovu support and adherence groups. Thabethe recovered from the meningitis too.
In 2007 Thabethe begged Tempelman for a job.
“My husband was dead, I was a single mother and I said I would do any job because my children deserved to eat and to go to school,” she says.
Tempelman employed her as a cleaner. She says: “I liked the job because when I finished cleaning I would go talk to the HIV patients who were like me. I was like a counsellor to them,” she says.
More tears stream down her face as she voices her sadness of losing her job and her anxiety over what treatment she will receive at the state-run facilities.
“Eish, it’s hard for me to leave Ndlovu and to know I will never take my medicine here again,” she says. Thabethe and Lungile have been transferred to Kwarrielaagte clinic. It’s about 15km from their home and for the pair a round trip to the clinic will cost R40.
Thabethe has hopes to start a spaza shop but she knows it will take a lot of equipment and logistics to make it work.
She’s silent for a while, more tears fall. “I will never forget Dr T. I call him my father because of what he did for me and for Lungile. Lungi is 22 now and has a daughter who is HIV negative,” Thabethe says.
Thabethe doesn’t know what the future holds. But she does know what can’t be taken away from her: her achievement of remaining a stage 1 HIV patient after 15 years of treatment.
“I’m proud of myself for that, and I’m proud of Dr T also,” she says.
NOTE: While Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.