At the age of 13, Ndumiso Gamede was orphaned when his parents died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa.
He is left to raise his two younger brothers, a grueling battle against isolation, stigma and poverty.
Gamde, now 28, points to pictures of his parents hanging on the wall in the dimly lit boxy garage he calls home.
“They were both HIV positive,” he said.
He said he had no one to guide him through his most vulnerable teenage years and “almost committed a crime” to survive and “drugs” to cope.
Ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, the plight of orphans in South Africa remains a stain on a country that otherwise took a huge step towards an epidemic.
The prevalence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, continues to be one of the highest in the world at 13.7 percent.
But deaths have plummeted thanks to the introduction of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), drugs that, due to a tragic combination of cost and political denial, were not available to poor South Africans when the disease was at its zenith.
More than 5.4 million of the estimated 8.2 million infected are taking ARVs in South Africa, which has one of the largest HIV treatment programs in the world.
Life-saving drugs also mean that the number of orphans infected with AIDS has dropped, says Agnes Mokoto, who runs the orphan program at the Cape Town charity Networking HIV and AIDS Community of Southern Africa.
– “Army of orphans” –
According to UNAIDS, there were 960,000 AIDS orphans in South Africa, up from 1.9 million in 2009. Any child who loses one or both parents to HIV is considered an orphan.
The gap in the country’s population pyramid due to the epidemic has created a lost generation, especially young parents.
“(In) the dark days at the beginning of the millennium, people were dying in droves, and that created an army of orphans,” said Professor Linda-Gale Becker, head of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.
Gamede’s parents died at a particularly painful time as AIDS denial was entrenched in the South African government, beginning with then-President Thabo Mbeki.
According to a Harvard University study, misguided policies and the promotion of fake drugs have caused more than 330,000 deaths.
Discrimination against people with HIV was severe, and it was most felt by those orphaned by the disease.
Gamed and his two brothers had to fight for survival after being shunned by their extended family.
“After my parents died, they turned their backs on us, they didn’t want to know…what we were missing,” he said, thinking deeply.
He lives in Vosloorus, a town 30 kilometers (18 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, with dusty streets and makeshift dwellings.
– ID Cards –
For some orphans, even getting papers is an extra battle.
Nonhlanhla Mazaleni, head of an AIDS orphanage in Johannesburg, says she cares for 21 young people living with HIV who have no identity cards because they were abandoned after being orphaned.
“One of the children is deaf, he came to us when he was two years old, he is now 24 years old, he does not work, and since he does not have an identity card, he cannot claim disability benefits,” she said.
Now that he has a baby, Gamde looks proudly at his computer screen as he plays his music video, singing along and nodding to the beat.
Next to Gamde’s bed is a gray crib, and a foam mattress lies on the floor.
He finds solace in rapping when looking for a job, which he says proved difficult because he couldn’t continue his studies.
It also hosts groups of young people orphaned by HIV/AIDS and offers gardening lessons as a form of therapy.
But his life is hard.
Hamed believes that if AIDS hadn’t hit his family, “the chances… would have been easy. Life wouldn’t be like this.”
deputy / sn / ri