Interview: “I used that anger to feed my activist’s soul,” says former TAC General Secretary
Dressed in a dark jacket, rain is pelting Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola’s face as she rushes past bare trees in Geneva, Switzerland. Along with her two children, Dubula-Majola has newly moved into a house in nearby Genthod, from where she commutes to work by train.
In October, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis [TB] and Malaria, appointed Dubula-Majola as head of their community, rights and gender department. The Global Fund has allocated tens of billions of dollars around the world to fight HIV since its inception in 2002.
Five weeks into the job, Dubula-Majola tells Spotlight that a big challenge for her will be to hone a new tool – that of diplomacy.
Laughing, the former General Secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) says that in the past, diplomacy has not been her greatest strength.
“In this new job, I am required to be diplomatic,” she says. “Basically, diplomacy is being nice in the face of atrocities, and I am not that person. So it will be a huge challenge for me, it’s going to take a shift. I will have to keep asking myself, ‘what value I can add in this position?’ While developing new tools and new ways of fighting, without being the noisy person in the room.”
The power of collective action
Known for not mincing her words, the activist-scholar is talking to Spotlight over Zoom while walking to the Global Fund’s offices in central Geneva. She adds: “Activists don’t like bureaucracies by nature, but you have a voice here. You have political currency to shift things. It’s a tough one, but I’m there.”
In a 2014 TedX talk hosted in London, an inflamed Dubula-Majola told the audience that she is angry – angry with her father, angry with her government, angry at everyone. But that she was using her anger to fuel her work.
“Anger is a powerful source of power if used positively,” she said. “I mean, without feelings or emotions, how does one become an activist with fire? Being diagnosed with HIV at my prime age, as well as being told I was too poor to be treated, that made me angry. I used that anger to feed my activist’s soul, to look for solutions.”
While she is in Switzerland, Dubula-Majola’s heart still brims with African proverbs, such as: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” She has experienced the power of such collective action first-hand at the TAC, but now she’ll be applying it on a different stage. Indeed, her new job is “to ensure that the Global Fund strongly engages civil society and promotes human rights and gender equality”, with a particular focus on supporting community led organisations.
As a role model for her new diplomatic duties, Dubula-Majola cites American public health official Loyce Pace. “Loyce Pace who runs the health program in the United States government, she is very effective in what she does while hardly saying anything in public. But she is shifting norms – bringing priority to black and poor people. She uses her allies and many other people similar to her to say things louder than she could…I guess this is another step of growth in my activist journey – to still be as effective, as radical, the very same eagerness and passion, but silently.”
‘There was no time to dream’
Dubla-Majola grew up in a village near Dutywa in the Eastern Cape. Aged 22 in Cape Town in 2001, she spiralled with depression after being diagnosed with HIV. But instead of resigning herself to what was then still a death sentence for most people, she joined the TAC – working night shifts at the McDonalds drive-through in Green Point, while by day she joined the fight to bring antiretrovirals and other medicines to South Africa.
“As a 22-year-old, I did not have fun, there was no time to dream,” she recalls. “I was fighting for my life and the lives of others. I never thought I would have children, I never thought I would get married, I never thought I would love again. Because there was also the issue of who infected me, how did this happen? You start resenting relationships.”
At the forefront of social justice activism for most of South Africa’s young democracy – a role model for people living with HIV, and for those fighting inequality – Dubula-Majola lead the TAC from 2007 to 2013, after which she joined Sonke Gender Justice as director of policy and accountability. She holds an MA in HIV/AIDS management from Stellenbosch University; her PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal examined “grassroots policy participation after a movement has succeeded to push for policy change,” using MSF’s [Médecins Sans Frontières] pioneering antiretroviral sites in Khayelitsha and Lusikisiki as samples.
‘Build and regain the dignity of poor people’
In 2018, when Stellenbosch University offered her a job as director of its Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management, Dubula-Majola was circumspect. Why take up appointment at a white male-dominated institution shackled by slow transformation, in an elitist town? But she took on the challenge to become the transformation she wanted to see.
Dubula-Majola tells Spotlight that while relishing the privilege of academia – a space to reflect – it saw her away from “the heat of the activist fire” for too long. Five years later, a new challenge awaits.
Reflecting on Stellenbosch, she says: “This [job at the Global Fund] is even harder, because it’s not just one country, one university. This is all the continents of the world. All of them facing the same thing, the struggle here is to build and regain the dignity of poor people around the globe.”
Despite her early misgivings about relationships, Dubula-Majola married fellow TAC activist, Mandla Majola. Their children, now aged 10 and 16, are HIV-negative. Presently Majola is helping with their friend Zackie Achmat’s independent campaign for the 2024 general elections, after which he will join his wife in Geneva. The family will unite in Switzerland for Christmas though – “which will be the most miserable and cold Christmas,” says Dubula-Majola, laughing. “It will be our first winter Christmas and our last. As we just arrived a month ago, it doesn’t make sense to travel back to South Africa for the holidays.”
Overall she says she remains hopeful, adding that movements like #MeTo are lessons in global solidarity.
Her thoughts on continuing the fight against HIV: “It is up to HIV positive people, and those who want to remain HIV negative, to steer towards an AIDS-free generation. We must stop complaining, thinking politicians will do everything for us, and do it ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Global Fund representatives have voiced confidence in Dubula-Majola’s ability to lead. Marijke Wijnroks, head of the organisation’s strategic investment and impact division, said in a statement: “Following an extensive search process, I am delighted to say that we found the ideal person for this role. As a person living with HIV, Vuyiseka’s lived experience and leadership style are well aligned to what we need from this critical role.”
Note: Dubula-Majola is a former General Secretary of the TAC. Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the TAC, but is editorially independent – an independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.