Maverick Citizen

OBITUARY

Nomandla Yako, the HIV/Aids activist who ‘planted hope’

Nomandla Yako, the HIV/Aids activist who ‘planted hope’
Nomandla Yako. (Photo: Facebook)

A planter of hope, the ‘humble, calm’ HIV/Aids activist is remembered for her contribution to changing the story of ARV access and patients’ rights in South Africa.

In the despairing, dark days when HIV was ravaging South Africa and access to treatment was priced out of reach for thousands, the most an infected person could wish for some days was hope and a friendly face. 

Nomandla Yako was that pillar to many.

Yako was one of the first volunteer educators in the early years of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). She was diagnosed with HIV in 1999 when she gave birth to her child that year. Becoming a community activist made her “one of thousands of brave working-class women living with HIV who built TAC into a movement,” says Zackie Achmat, activist and co-founder of TAC. 

Yako, 42, died at Groote Schuur Hospital before midnight on 28 June from organ failure resulting from Covid-19 infection.

Friends and family have been paying tribute to a woman they’ve described as “calm, kind and humble”, someone who made her point without losing her cool and remained true to her activist roots till the end. In addition to her years of work with TAC, Yako worked as a counsellor at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital and contributed to a project on patient consent at the University of Cape Town (UCT). 

Friend and activist Vuyiseka Dubula-Majola, who is now the director of the University of Stellenbosch’s Africa Centre for HIV/AIDS Management, remembers Yako’s deep impact on her life. They became firm friends from the first moment they met at a Khayelitsha clinic in 2001. 

“I walked into a clinic and found Nomandla there as a TAC educator. She was so strong and knowledgeable. I had just been diagnosed with HIV and was completely depressed and didn’t know if there was a way forward,” says Dubula-Majola.

She remembers Yako’s mischievous side too. After the clinic session all those years ago Dubula-Majola walked with Yako to the TAC office across the road from the clinic.

“We connected first because we were the same age. Then in the office that day she made two phone calls, the first was to someone in TAC she believed was my cousin (which turned out to be correct) and then she phoned Mandla Majola and told him ‘I’ve found you a wife’ and today Mandla is my husband,” Dubula-Majola says.

Yako, along with Matthew Damane and Achmat, travelled to Brazil in January 2002 to buy generic ARV medicines as part of the TAC’s campaign to break the patent laws. It was also a way to keep up the pressure on government to start providing ARVs for South Africa’s growing HIV-infected population. Yako became one of the first people to start treatment through Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, in Khayelitsha. 

Dubula-Majola went on to join TAC herself, remembering, “I wanted to be like Nomandla who was going through so much, with her diagnosis and with a baby but still believing and still fighting. She was the kind of person who planted hope.”

But Yako could be militant too, wearing her “HIV Positive” T-shirt proudly proclaiming her status to challenge stigma. She also took part in photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographic essay Framing Aids, documenting the realities and struggles of people living with HIV. 

She was undeterred fighting AIDS denialism under Thabo Mbeki’s presidency; and took a firm stand against profiteering by big pharmaceutical companies from ARV medicines. In the early 2000s a tablet that could be procured for 24 cents was being sold for around R300. 

Yako, along with Matthew Damane and Achmat, travelled to Brazil in January 2002 to buy generic ARV medicines as part of the TAC’s campaign to break the patent laws. It was also a way to keep up the pressure on government to start providing ARVs for South Africa’s growing HIV-infected population. Yako became one of the first people to start treatment through Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, in Khayelitsha. 

Achmat says: “The TAC action to import ARVs supported by MSF and Cosatu broke the patent laws and Nomandla was prepared to go to prison to save lives. At that time we helped save a few thousand lives, today about three million people access ARVs in our country and tens of millions globally because of the actions and sacrifices of people, mainly working-class women, such as Nomandla Yako. 

For Nondumiso Mvinjelwa, also a fellow activist and friend, Yako was the person she could break down in front of, the person who became a sister who just “had an aura about her that made you believe that everything was going to be alright”. 

The pair became friends in 1999 meeting through MSF and TAC in Khayelitsha in a time when Mvinjelwa’s sister had just been diagnosed with HIV and when she says, “the stigma and the fear were real”. 

Mvinjelwa remembers the group of young women growing up together as activists in TAC. She says as the “loud radical” she learnt from Yako that you can be subtle and be just as effective in making yourself heard. She’s proud to stand with Yako as the “class who graduated from the University of TAC and one of those who never lost touch with what made them”. 

Mvinjelwa admits she’s distraught knowing that her friend became infected with Covid-19 even as she says Yako was “cautious and alert and would not move an inch towards any Covid-19 risk”. 

Yako’s older sister Nomvuyiso Yako says her sister suffered from a cold in May but got over that. She then started complaining of a cough in early June that got progressively worse and came with extreme fatigue. Yako was finally admitted to Groote Schuur on 22 June and tested positive for Covid-19.

“She was in a new house in Goodwood and I remember telling her to get a heater when she first got a cold in May. Then when she got sick with the coughing I told her to go to the doctor but she was scared of testing positive for Covid-19. When she was in hospital I believed that she was going to fight the virus because she went through so much in her life and she’s always been a fighter,” Nomvuyiso says.  

Her “little sister” was the family bookworm, the peacemaker who loved a big family gathering and she was the carnivore – happiest when there was a pork dish on the menu.

“Nomandla was the one in the family who never liked tensions; she always wanted to make sure that everyone was getting along. She was so loving to her family, her friends, to everybody. She really cared,” she says. 

Yako was one of five children and the family grew up in the Eastern Cape and later in Cape Town. She was married to Sonny Udogo and was mother to Thamsanqa, Mario and Chima. DM/MC

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.