How these twin brothers are changing the way South African's think about HIV
HIV-positive Thula Mkhize wants to change the way people view the disease. Here he and his twin, Ntokozo, share their story.
He’ll never forget the day life as he knew it changed forever. Thula Mkhize was young and in love and things between him and his girlfriend were getting serious. The year was 2008 and Thula and his then sweetheart had spent the festive season with his family in Pietermaritzburg. Afterwards they went on a road trip to Polokwane in Limpopo and as they drove past a clinic Thula decided on a whim they should go for HIV tests. “I was simply curious,” he says.
“Nothing could prepare me for what lay ahead.” A nurse drew his blood then told him, “Sir, we just need to take more blood so we can be sure.” Several weeks and more tests later the results were confirmed: Thula, then just 23 years old, was HIV positive. His girlfriend was negative – Thula had contracted the virus from a previous partner. “I cried,” he says.
His twin brother, Ntokozo, also wept when he learnt of his brother’s diagnosis. But once the shock had passed the handsome pair decided some good had to come of it. HIV wasn’t a death sentence – you just needed to know how to live with it. If you took your antiretrovirals you could have a healthy, full life. They decided to dedicate themselves to changing the way South Africans perceive the virus and founded their non- profit organisation, Good Stories, which tells stories of South Africans living successfully with HIV.
Ten years later the initiative is still going strong. The twins travel the country, going to schools, prisons and community halls to spread their message of hope. Yes, Thula admits, hearing he was HIV positive scared him. “But I didn’t want fear to overtake my life.” He began to work on reversing the process he calls “HIV damaged”. “There are so many things about HIV that aren’t true, or were true in the past, that have been passed on to us.”
Ignorance and stigma still abound, despite efforts by HIV organisations to change it. And Thula wants to do something about that – so he started with himself. He read and learnt as much as he could about the virus, empowering himself and speaking to people who’d been living with HIV for a long time. “Once I had won the battle in my own mind, I knew I could achieve anything.” Through Good Stories, he and his brother hope to expose South Africans to “the other side of HIV”. “And that’s the positive side,” Thula says. “The side that promotes responsibility, healthy living, and most of all, a changed and positive mindset towards all HIV/Aids-related issues.”
Life is about choices, Thula believes. “If you choose to live, you will live and if you choose to die, you will die. “Thanks to modern science and medicine, this thing [HIV] can be effectively managed to the point where it doesn’t exist in your system.”
Thula has been taking ARVs for a decade and managed to reduce the virus to undetectable levels. He and wife Lindo are parents to Ngelosi (11) – Lindo’s daughter from a previous relationship – and son Qhawe (2). They’re expecting another daughter in June.
The couple started dating in 2004 but split up when they went to study at different universities – Lindo at Wits and Thula at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he graduated with a BCom. “The distance broke us, and we didn’t have money, so it kind of didn’t work out then,” Thula recalls. The couple reconnected in 2011 and were married in 2014. Lindo was initially shocked when she learnt about his HIV status, but like him she set about educating herself about the condition.
“It was difficult, but we worked through it,” he says. Similarly, their decision to have children was also a well-researched one as they understood taking ARVs would mean the virus wouldn’t be passed on to Lindo or their children. ARVs, he says, “work so well we might not even need an outright cure”.
The Mkhize twins have seen reports about the British man who may have been cured of HIV (see box) but the treatment he received is still a long way from being available to the public. “It’s great that they are making strides, but when they cure 500 people, we can have a conversation,” Ntokozo says. Thula echoes his twin’s sentiments.
“To get it right, just like ARVs, is going to take a long time.” For now, the Mkhize twins are focused on the message of living successfully with HIV. Ntokozo, who also has a BCom, says by working on Good Stories they keep developing their sense of self. “Should my kids find out they are HIV positive, 10 to 20 years from now, I want them to grow up in a world that will accept them.” Good Stories is his brother’s greatest accomplishment. “The best legacy a man can leave behind is the lives he has changed,” Ntokozo says.
The twins encourage everyone they address to use condoms and offer meaningful advice about how to live well after an HIV-positive diagnosis. “The biggest take-out I want people to get from my story is everything and anything is possible,” Thula says. “But it’s up to you to believe”.