Thembela Gqokoma

“Overcoming the fear of death – back in the day when I first tested, there was a belief that if you test positive then you will die within a year… Look at me now” – Thembela Gqokoma

How My HIV Journey Began

I dated a guy in 1997, dated him for a short period because he was always working around the country. He was a soldier for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). We ended-up not seeing each other until February 1998. I still remember that day, it was the morning of the 7th of February. He told me he was admitted at the local chest hospital and was suffering from pneumonia, the first question I asked was, are you suffering from AIDS? I had to make sure as this was the general belief in my township.

We ended-up dating again. In May he was discharged and he was deployed in Ermelo by SANDF. He used to come home once a month until in November when I decided to also go to Ermelo, after a week there he developed blisters in his private parts and he started beating me saying I have brought him AIDS because I was cheating when he was at work. The following morning I asked him to go and test with me so that I can know if I am indeed positive. We went to the sickbay and did the tests, we had to wait for a week for results. We went for our results and the social worker started with mine and asked why I tested, I lied and said I just want to know my status. She said I was negative. She then asked the guy why he tested again because he tested in September. He said he didn’t get the results because he was deployed in the Mozambican border. The lady said your results were positive and they are still positive now. It became night during the day. I was scared, angry and shocked. She asked if we wanted counselling or we want to go home to digest the news, we opted for the latter. We went home, but we didn’t talk about the results, we just cuddled. Rejecting counselling was probably one of the worse decisions we ever made, going home in that state, without professional help or an idea of how we could deal with this was a bad idea.

Negative While Positive

About two years of my life were a bit confusing, I would get tested and the results would come back negative. This was strange because my partner was living with HIV and we were not using condoms. My partner and I used to fight because he wanted to use protection and I didn’t want to, I told him if he was going to die of AIDS, I will also die of it. I was not educated about the virus at the time, and me not wanting to use a condom was a way of showing him that I love him. In January 1999, I found out I was pregnant and my results were still negative. The nurses were begging me to use protection, but I was not listening to them. Sadly in March I miscarried. I was sad and angry. Angry at him, blaming him, but not because of his status but because I believed I was bewitched by his ex-wife.

Couple of months later I tested again, and the results were still negative. The fact that I was still negative really puzzled the nurses at sickbay and they said my blood has resistance. In April I got pregnant again and in June we got married. September 1999 I tested and this time results came back positive. HIV was not a topic we talked about in our house, it was forbidden. In January 2000 I gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, I was broken inside. In the process of grieving for my baby girl I pushed my hubby away, he ended-up cheating and was very abusive. In September 2000 I couldn’t take to his beating, I left him.


No one knew about my status when I left my husband. In a way I could say we were in denial, so we never talked about it and hence I never shared my status with anybody. In December 2002, there was a funeral in my community of a lady who had died of AIDS related illness, I don’t know what happened but during the service at the graveyard I stood up and disclosed my status for the first time. In hind sight, I think I just wanted to get it out, talk about it. But yyyhhhooo, after that people were gossiping about me, everywhere I went people would say bad things about behind my back. It was not easy, but I held my head high. At the time of me disclosing to the community, my family was still in the dark. Next I disclosed to my church, and some of my family members were present. It was an HIV/AIDS event and they had invited a person living with HIV from outside, I think I wanted to show them that they have people living with the virus in their midst. I won’t lie they didn’t judge me.

The person I had a problem opening to was my mum, my mum is my everything to me. Every time I tried telling her I would just breakdown and cry, I thought the news would kill her. Finally I told her in August 2003, she was very calm, if she was shocked, she hid it very well. From that day till today she has been my support system. Every time she hears about something that boosts the immune system, she buys it for me. From then till now I have been living openly with HIV and I love it. One of the best decisions of my life, I feel free; I can be myself and not have to live a secret life.


I met a guy four years after I left my husband, told him about my status and he thought I was lying because of my appearance. In the first few months of us dating he told me that his ex-girlfriend once told him she was positive and that he must also do the test. He never tested, he was in denial, big time. When I met him I was an HIV/AIDS activist at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), but I had to stop because he threatened to leave me if I don’t stop working for TAC. Because I love him, I stopped.

I fell pregnant, and that hit my mum very hard because she thought I was gonna die as most people who were living with HIV were dying back then. I had to re-assure her that I wasn’t going anywhere. In 2005 August I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. In 2006 I lost my baby daddy to AIDS related illnesses because he was in denial. I still get emotional when I think about him and blame myself for his death. I should have been stronger, wiser and should have done something to help him accept his status and start taking antiretroviral treatment. After him I told myself I will never compromise myself for a guy, if you love me then you must know I’m living openly with HIV.

In my journey with HIV I have experienced a lot of rejection from guys because most guys run away from you the minute you disclose. I ended-up using my status as a weapon to chase guys away. Life went on and in 2008 I met a guy who also was HIV positive. I won’t portray myself as a saint, we were part-timing protection and I fell pregnant again, gave birth to a healthy boy in 2009. But I broke-up with the guy in 2010 because he was a womaniser.

I dated on and off until 2012 when I met the man I’m married to now. He was very supportive. We’d take our medication at the same time; take turns getting the medication out and the water. I thought we had it good, but I recently found out he was cheating on me and I don’t take kindly to cheating so we in the process of getting a divorce. I will not be with a man who fails to love and respect me as a woman.

Living Life To The Fullest – Not HIV Limited

In 2012 I decided to go back to school because I had no matric and it was not easy finding a job. I enrolled at the local get college and did National Certificate Vocational (NCV). People were telling me that I’m wasting my time. I remember one guy who was my friend asking me how long my studies will be, told him 6 years, and he exclaimed, “do you think you’ll finish given your status?” I told him only God knows how long will I live, I had already lived 12 years with the virus. I studied, passed my level four with flying colours. I didn’t and I will never let HIV limit me, it’s just a lodger in my body, I’m going out there and I’m building a bright future for myself and my kids. Now I’m going for a diploma in financial management.

I started ARV’s in October 2011. My viral load has been undetectable for over a year now. It was not easy, but I’ve made it till now. Everywhere I go I educate people about living with HIV. I can do anything I set my mind to with the support of my family and kids.

I come from a close family, HIV didn’t change us, nor destroy us, and it actually made us even stronger. My kids are my life, I live for them, and they are the best thing that has ever happened to me. They know that mummy is taking medication, although the two young ones don’t know what the medication is for, only the eldest knows and he doesn’t have a problem.

Struggles And Successes


  1. Losing my fiancé and being labelled as his killer. People had the perception that I had killed him with a love potion when he was in denial and never took responsibility for where he was. That’s what killed him, denial kills.
  2. Being labelled as isifebe (slut) just because I’m living with HIV.


  1. Overcoming the fear of death – back in the day when I first tested, there was a belief that if you test positive then you will die within a year. Look at me now, I’ve lived with HIV for 17 years.
  2. Fulfilling my dream of being educated – I failed matric in 1994, tested positive in 1999; I didn’t see the importance of education because I thought I would die soon. Thought it was a waste of time and money, just like many people do. After 12 years of living with the virus I realised I have wasted my time and I went back to school. Registered at the local FET College. Initially, I just wanted to get to a level 4 that is equivalent to matric, in 2014 my dream was achieved and now my dream has developed into obtaining a diploma in financial management. Educating me is my biggest success and now even the sky is not the limit.