It hasn’t been all moonshine and roses, but today Sanele Xaba is comfortable in his own skin, pushing beauty boundaries with the world at his feet.
His mother, Sithembisile Xaba, and father, the now late Peter Koopman, split soon after his birth in Durban in November 1994.
When Sithembisile left the hospital, his relatives asked whether she had taken the wrong baby – as her infant’s skin and hair were as pale as milk.
Sithembisile assured them he was the right one and, as a single mother employed as a medical technologist, she went on to raise her son to never doubt himself.
“My mother was a Zulu woman and my dad coloured. Apparently on my dad’s side, my great-great-grandfather had albinism,” says Xaba, speaking to City Press between rehearsals on Thursday for SA Menswear Week at the Cape Town Stadium.
Xaba took to catwalks this week to showcase fashion by nine local designers. He worked for everyone from industry veteran Amanda Laird Cherry to rising star Mo’ko Elosa over the four days.
Xaba follows in the footsteps of Refilwe Modiselle from Soweto, who became South Africa’s first runway model with albinism when she appeared for designer David Tlale in 2005.
She was followed by the porcelain-skinned Thando Hopa from Lenasia South. Hopa has been a state prosecutor and fashion brand ambassador for designer Gert-Johan Coetzee since 2012.
Xaba, Modiselle and Hopa have used fashion as their platform to create awareness around their genetic condition – a lack of pigmentation affecting the eyes, hair and skin – which, in Africa, has been known to lead to discrimination and even being murdered.
Xaba was one of a few black pupils at Durban’s Open Air School, and certainly the school’s only “undercover black”, as he puts it. Those challenges aside, he became head boy in matric.
He does not refer to himself as “an albino”, he says. At 21 years of age, he defines himself as a black man, but his journey to self-acceptance was long. He contemplated suicide in his early teens.
“When I reached puberty, I was terribly insecure; I had so many questions for my mum, like: ‘Why is my hair different?’ and ‘What’s up with my skin?’
“People would turn around and stare. I mean, they would actually trip. I got angry, even though I knew these people lacked education.
“At the time, I thought: I don’t want to be different; I don’t want to put on sunscreen every day!”
This changed when he was scouted by a Durban modelling agency at the age of 15.
“Modelling helped me to boost my humble confidence. I got to accept myself.”
Now he wants to use his profession to help normalise what the mainstream considers “different”.
“I don’t want people tagged as ‘different’ to feel the need to isolate themselves to be accepted,” he says.
Meanwhile, Xaba is popular in fashion circles, says Jen Deiner, head producer for Group of Creatives, the organisers of SA Menswear Week.
“The designers love Sanele. His look works well across aesthetics. He has a strong career. He is a busy youngster going places. He is also just a really sweet guy,” she adds.
The sweet guy with a ready laugh is also single. His first and only love, Keri-Leigh Hope, a fellow model and journalism student at the Durban University of Technology, committed suicide in 2014.
He pulls up his slender shoulders. “After that, there were a few encounters with women, but I always get dumped because I work too hard. I am proud of that, actually.”
In August last year, he moved to Woodstock, Cape Town, where he is now signed with top agency Boss Models.
Off the planks, he has a nine-to-five office job at financial services group Sanlam, where he was recently employed on contract following an internship. When he gets home at night, he burns the midnight oil studying towards a BCom law degree through Unisa.
“Ja, I have no time to slack off,” he says. “I am also very picky about who I spend my time with: people who are genuine and impact my life positively.”
His plans for the future?
He has possible modelling gigs lined up in Bermuda, New York and London.
He hopes to open his own agency in Durban specialising in “models with unique looks and colours” by the time he is 30.