Positively Heroic

By Drum Digital
25 August 2010

HE’S seen a lot in his life: vigilante violence that left his best friend dead, guerrilla warfare in Uganda and plenty of bloodshed in South Africa’s turbulent history. But nothing has put him off his calling to be a soldier – and recently he returned from strife-torn Sudan where he worked as a peacekeeper and saw sights even he doesn’t want to dwell on.

Sergeant Sipho Mthethwa’s homecoming from the North African country was celebrated by his colleagues and underlings at 121 SAI Battalion in Mtubatuba, KwaZulu-Natal. Yet while his duties as a soldier are held in high esteem, it is for another reason that the 40-year-old sergeant is regarded as a hero by so many. If he hadn’t fought for his rights he’d never have gone to Sudan – and by winning the most important battle of his life he paved the way for soldiers like him to have fulfilling careers in the army.

Sipho is HIV-positive. In 2008 he made headlines when he took the SA National Defence Force to court after they refused to allow him to serve as a peacekeeper in a foreign country because of his status.

He eventually won his case and became something of a legend in the SANDF. Just how well-known he has become is clear the minute we pull up at the gates of 121 SAI. “Ah,” the guard says, “I can see you want to meet Jum-Jum.”

“No,” we reply, “we want to see Sergeant Mthethwa.” But Jum-Jum is what everyone calls him around here – although not even the man himself can recall the origin of the nickname. It’s just what he is, he tells us.

He has ditched his army fatigues for jeans and a casual shirt and is relaxed as he shelters from the humid heat under a banana tree.

Fit and strong, it’s hard to believe he is HIV-positive. He is no less healthy today than he was when he discovered he had the virus in 2001.

Sipho recalls that day as if it were yesterday. “Like all members of the military I had to undergo health checks under the force’s comprehensive health analysis system before I could be deployed as a peacekeeper. To my shock, I tested HIV-positive, which didn’t satisfy my employer’s requirements.”

His shock was followed by depression but the nurses at the military hospital gave him the will to live. “They showed me I just had to adjust my lifestyle and live positively and I could be just as good as the next guy. And that gave me my life back.”

SIPHO’S next step was to tackle the SANDF’s decision not to allow HIV-positive soldiers to serve as peacekeepers. With the help of the Aids Law Project and the South African Security Forces Union, he set out to prove he was being discriminated against on the basis of his condition.

“I was strong, just as I am today. I am healthy, it’s just that I have a virus I can manage.” Sipho has been on antiretroviral medication since 2001 and has his condition well under control.

The parties finally reached an agreement in the North Gauteng High Court in May 2008 but it was only in September last year that army chief Lieutenant-General Solly Shoke authorised Sipho’s deployment to Sudan. He believes standing up to his bosses may have reduced his chances of promotion. But he also knows his victory means any HIV-positive person can be promoted and deployed to foreign countries as long as they meet certain requirements.

Their CD4 count (a measure of immune system strength) must be higher than 350, and they must have an undetectable viral load (the amount of HI virus in the blood). Sipho’s count was 500 when he left for Sudan, and 500 on his return.

For the full article read DRUM of 2 September 2010

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