Aids orphan takes on world

She's just 23 yet she’s challenged Tony Blair, been on TV with Bob Geldof and bowled over one of the world’s most influential businessmen.

Meet Sibulele Sibaca, a dynamic young woman who refused to let hardship get her down and now has the world at her feet.

By age 17 she’d lost both parents to Aids and was bitter, rebellious and heading for a life of promiscuity. Yet Sibulele – or Sibu as everyone calls her – turned things around, thanks to her go-getter attitude and a brother who sacrificed a budding soccer career to help his sister.

Handpicked by Richard Branson
Today the inspirational young woman manages Virgin Active’s Corporate Social Investment Department in South Africa, having been handpicked by Virgin boss Richard Branson himself to join his initiative in Mzansi.

She promotes various charities dealing with HIV/Aids, malaria and TB, and travels the country holding workshops and meeting investors.

‘‘I’m very passionate about what I do,’’ she says. ‘‘Helping the less fortunate and making a difference in their lives means a lot to me.’’

Petite and attractive, Sibu lives in a stylish townhouse in Midrand, Gauteng, drives a gleaming black car with personalised number plates and looks every inch the savvy young exec.

Yet she’ll easily admit she had no idea who Richard Branson was, and at first turned down his job offer. He wasn’t put off – he just said the offer would always be open if she changed her mind.

Which, fortunately, she did.

A life turned upside down
Sibu was born and raised in Langa, Cape Town, where she and her older brother, Sonwabo, enjoyed a reasonably privileged childhood. Their mother taught at a school for children with special needs and their dad was a school inspector and pastor.

Sibu loved going to work with her mom and travelling around the Western Cape with her dad on his school visits. But at age 13 her life turned upside down when her mom died after a short illness.

‘‘My father tried hard to be mom and dad all in one and he did a great job,’’ she recalls. But gradually he too became ill, and passed away in 2000. It was a terrible shock.’’

Psychologist Vanessa Feldman says the loss of both parents at such a young age is extremely traumatic to any child. “It can create deep abandonment wounds,” she says.

Sibu didn’t know what had claimed her parents until she was riding in a taxi and heard women gossiping about her father. ‘‘They said he’d died of Aids,’’ she says softly. ‘‘I was devastated.’’

Sibu confronted her brother when she got home and demanded the truth. He told her their father had confessed the cause of their mother’s death and his own illness.

‘‘I was so angry,’’ she recalls. ‘‘I beat him with my fists, cried and asked him how he could lie to me.’’

Their once happy home life was shattered. To make matters worse, there was precious little money left as their father had cashed in his insurance policies to pay for antiretrovirals (ARVs).

‘‘I hated my dad’s guts,’’ says Sibu. ‘‘I held him responsible for what happened to our mother and I even hated our family name. I rebelled and did a lot of things I’m not proud of: hanging out with boys, being promiscuous.’’

Sibu’s rebellious behaviour as a teenager may have been her way of coping with pain, says Feldman: “Teenagers are very self-conscious and peer approval is critical at that age as they try and fit in with others their age. She was probably trying to find some sense of belonging and love.”

The community’s response to their plight hurt Sibu deeply. “I’d always been skinny, and my mother battled to get me to eat. But when my parents died, rumours spread that I was also HIV-positive. I hated the way I looked and had a very poor self-image.”

At that stage school was the only source of support for her in dealing with her father’s death. “I went to bereavement counselling twice a week for six months and it helped me deal with how my father died and all the other problems afterwards.”

An amazing brother
Sonwabo, then in his early 20s, also stepped in to control his wayward sister. ‘‘His own life basically stopped,’’ she recalls.

Sibu was in Grade 11 at Westerford High, a top Cape Town school, and her brother scrimped and saved to pay the fees.

‘‘He was amazing. He’d been invited to take part in trials for Kaizer Chiefs but he let go of his dreams to make sure my life didn’t turn into a disaster. He told me to listen to him and once I’d finished Matric I could do what I wanted.’’

As it turned out, she ended up doing rather a lot . . .

A new hope
Soon after finishing school Sibu was invited by a friend to become a peer educator and motivator for Aids prevention and awareness programme loveLife.

Because of her experience with the stigma of being an AIDS orphan, Sibu initially hesitated.

“I dislike the term ‘AIDS orphan’ because it labels you as a statistic, and puts expectations on you to conform to society’s rules. At the end of the day we’re just kids without parents,” says Sibu.

But loveLife’s groundBREAKER training programme helped her to make peace with her situation. “They helped me understand it wasn’t my fault my life turned out the way it did.”

‘‘My mentor, Madodo Mabutho, inspired me to become a motivational speaker in the township. “I feared talking to kids in the same community who knew everything about my family. But Madodo had faith in me – he told me I was going to succeed beyond my wildest dreams and his confidence started to rub off on me. Besides, I decided it was going to take less energy to prove him right than to disappoint him!’’

Sibu shone at motivational speaking and was soon in high demand and fully involved in loveLife. In 2004 she became the communications officer, featured in the media and began travelling internationally to attend youth summits.

She was addressing a function in Johannesburg when Branson saw her presentation and was so blown away he offered her a job.

Baffled by the offer and about who the bearded businessman was she said thanks, but no thanks. ‘‘If you ever change your mind, the job’s yours,’’ he replied.

In 2005 Sibu travelled to Scotland to attend the G8 Summit, the annual meeting of leaders of the eight most powerful nations, as HIV/Aids was also on the agenda.

While there she was invited to participate in an MTV Base show about the pandemic, with Tony Blair and Bob Geldof. Blair made an impassioned plea to the world to help African children affected by the condition – but when it was Sibu’s time to speak she contradicted him.

‘‘I don’t want the Prime Minister’s money,’’ she said. ‘‘I feel he should rather teach me how to make my own.’’

Blair was shocked, she recalls. ‘‘But then he asked me to clarify what I meant and I explained Africans aren’t basket cases needing charity – we need help in learning how to take care of ourselves.

‘‘When I got home I contacted Mr Branson and told him I felt my job needed to go global and accepted his offer.’’

Sibu was first asked to work on five of the Virgin brands, but quickly realised she couldn’t do justice to so many portfolios.

Deciding to focus on the social development side of the business was an inspired choice and she hasn’t regretted joining Virgin for a second.

‘‘The people from my old community are very proud of me – and my brother is extra proud I’ve managed to stay out of trouble,’’ she says. ‘‘I’ve also made my peace with my father and I’m proud to be Sibaca now.’’

Sibu, who is also studying for a communications degree through City Varsity, has had three HIV tests and is grateful they’ve all been negative. That reckless time of her life is well behind her now. ‘‘I’ve grown up a lot,’’ she says gravely.

‘‘The mistakes your parents made aren’t yours”
So what advice would she like to pass on to other young people who’ve been orphaned by Aids? ‘‘The mistakes your parents made aren’t yours and your life doesn’t have to end the way theirs did. It’s up to you to make something of yourself – and once you’ve found something you’re good at and you like, stick to it.’’

Sibu was brave enough to face her pain in a therapeutic context, says Feldman.

“She’s a prime example of someone who’s taken their own personal tragedy and invested it into constructive community-serving work. Her ability to communicate with other youth members who could be affected by the Aids tragedy is a valuable contribution to society. We need more individuals like her to offer a first-hand sense of empathy for the many people at risk of contracting this disease. Let’s hope her work can educate our society and prevent more Aids-related suffering.”

- Adapted from an article by Vida Li Sik, in Drum, March 2007

Photo: Darryl Hammond

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