Caroline Tlapu

Pilar of her community, Soweto, and uses her experiences to make life easier for today’s generation. Diagnosed with HIV in 1993, and has lived and overcame some of the most unthinkable experiences.

Caroline Tlapu

Born 1956, mother of one and first born of five siblings. She’s an integral part of her community in Soweto where she grew up. Her positive spirit has influenced a lot of people in her community. Her family has played a vital role in her journey for the past 25 years and she spends most of her time giving back to the community as volunteer counsellor at South African Drugs and AIDS Council (SADAAC). She’s known by everyone in her community, young and old, and she uses her status to make a difference as a motivational speaker, a teacher, a listener and a healer. She does this in the streets, at schools, churches and wherever people gather. Her unique sense of humour comes through whenever she opens her mouth and her motherly smile can warm the coldest of winters.

The Test

In November 1993, I had this flu that just wouldn’t go away. As time progressed, it was coupled with a loss in appetite, no energy and I was sweating a lot. Eventually I went to go see a doctor, he ran some tests, confirmed that I had pneumonia. But he insisted that he does an HIV test, which came back positive. I was surprised, scared and thoughts of death filled my mind.

The doctor suggested that I don’t tell my partner, but rather bring him to see him as well. He ran tests on both of us as if he hadn’t tested me before, needless to say, he was also HIV positive. He did not seem surprised, showed no emotion. He kept looking at me as if he was expecting me to explode in anger.

The doctor sat us down and told us not to fight about this, but rather support each other and we will be just fine. I wanted to tell our families, but my partner said we must keep it a secret, because I loved and respected him, I agreed.


It took me about six months to disclose to my family. I first had to assess them to gauge their reaction and see if they would be able to handle the fact that they were now sharing a house with someone living with HIV. I would ask them certain questions every time the subject of HIV/AIDS came up, or I would bring it up to see what they would say. I remember a conversation with my brother and Neo, my son, I asked them what they would do if a family member was living with HIV and the answer was, I wouldn’t even sit next to them. I was heartbroken.

As hard as it was, I realised that I needed my family to help with this burden, so I disclosed to my younger sisters first, Tryphine and Joyce. I could see the shock and sadness in their eyes. I later disclosed to the rest of the family. The general reaction was negative; everyone was devastated and angry that I had brought shame to the family, especially my father.

My Partner

Very handsome, he looked humble, innocent, caring, a true charmer, which is why I was with him for 26 years. He was my first and only boyfriend. I gave my all to him, I gave him the world, and I adored him even though I knew he was cheating on me. Typical mentality of most men, they cannot eat the same “food” for the rest of their lives. When he was busy enjoying his food, he never disclosed that he was living with HIV, nor did he use a condom. I would sometimes tell his girlfriends that he was HIV positive, but they didn’t believe me, they thought I was lying because I was jealous. Pity none of them are around today, if only they had listened to me.

He also started treatment with me, but he used to hide it as it was increasingly difficult for him to take it when all his girlfriends were around. Inevitably he defaulted, got really sick and passed on in 2012.

How Do I Keep Healthy

I’ve accepted my status and I’m proud of it – that keeps me healthy.

I do not have a specific diet; I eat any and everything that is edible, you can see from my weight. But I try to make sure I eat vegetables and fruits. I also take immune boosters and vitamins. I don’t drink, nor do I smoke. I actually speak to this virus to keep under control, kea eroga (I curse at it). If I don’t curse it, it will do the hlokoloza (dance) and control me.

Another way to keep the virus from doing the hlokoloza is to keep taking my medication. I was blessed enough that I only started the medication in 2009, 16 years after I was diagnosed. When I started I was told never to default and I never did; I respect this medication too much. I’ve seen people die all around me, but this medication has kept me alive for all these years. When I tested, my CD4 count was 126, but today my CD4 count is 512 and the viral load is undetectable. This is what this medication has done for me.

The fact that I’m always happy and always laughing also keeps me healthy. When you’re happy, you get healed and can live a longer, healthier life. Religion also keeps me healthy – I love Jesus, and I thank Him every day for the life He has given me.

Caroline’s Family

Caroline’s family, and her SADAAC manager, Mr. Freddie Sithole have been instrumental in her successfully living with HIV for 25 years. So we spent some time with Mr. Sithole, her younger sister Tryphene, her son Neo, and they let us into the family history.

Freddie Sithole:

In 2005, Caroline came to me for help. She was very sick; she could hardly walk as her feet were swollen. I gave her healthy nutritious food and medication. Even though she came to me for help, but she was very stubborn and rejected everything I advised her on. She was deeply in love with her man, the man who disrespected her, cheated on her and forced her to have sex without a condom. I eventually had to give an ultimatum; she had to choose life (SADAAC) or death (her boyfriend). Luckily she chose life and I continued to shield her, protect her from everything negative. Whenever she would take her medication and it would make her dizzy, I would allow her to go home to sleep and still pay her a full salary at the end of the month.

I thank God I was able to save someone who is now saving thousands of people. I may not be the richest man in the world, but I certainly feel rich. This woman is an icon in Meadowlands, everybody loves her.

Tryphene and Neo:

At first the family kept it a secret; we felt that she had brought shame to family. It was so bad that no one even wanted to share a spoon with her. We expected her to be a spook like everyone we always see on TV and in the streets. Hence we invested in funeral plans, because we expected her to die soon. Family gathering were horrible as extended family members would talk about Caroline as if she was dead already.

But somehow she remained strong and kept fighting, and turned the situation around. We saw her rebuilding herself and becoming human again. I remember a specific incident when she was admitted at Helen Joseph hospital and we expected it to be the end of her, but when we went there to visit, we found her busy helping other people who were sick. That’s how giving our sister is. At one point we thought she was seeking attention with the public disclosure and her public work. Now we realise that God uses her as vessel to help other people. This is her calling.

We as a family educated ourselves about the virus so we would support her better and because of that we are closer than over. We are so proud of her and everything she’s done for other people that we use her as a benchmark whenever we talk about HIV/AIDS to other people and through those conversations, we as a family have given hope to so many people and helped them re-new their minds. As time went on we eventually cancelled the funeral plans, because this person was wasting our money, she wasn’t going anywhere.

We are very thankful for her being so strong, and teaching us how to be a true family. If it wasn’t for her maybe we would have also died of this virus too.

Thank you Caroline.