Source: IRIN Queen Tinyiko Nwamitwa-Shilubana has often found herself at the crossroads of South African history and has helped usher in democracy and expand women's rights. She has also helped define the role of traditional leaders in the fight against HIV. In 1993, Nwamitwa took part in the multi-party talks that were part of South Africa's transition to democracy and later became one of the country's first female parliamentarians. Almost two decades later, she also became South Africa's first female chief after winning a long court battle to reclaim the title from male relatives after her father's death. She now presides over about 70,000 members of her clan in Limpopo Province.
She spoke to IRIN/PlusNews about how HIV/AIDS has affected her community:
"For 15 years when I sat in parliament, each time I went home, I knew that the parliament was in Cape Town but that my community was in Limpopo, in the most rural area. Being in parliament I had to go through all the workshops [on HIV] so I was aware of it but I didn't have the mandate [to act before I assumed the chieftaincy].
"Women, men, children, when you looked at them you could see they were having real problems with HIV. Our culture usually waits to bury people on Saturday but now they were also burying people Monday through Friday because of HIV.
"But people in my community didn't want to come out, so that's why my first task as hosi [queen in Tsonga] was to visit the health clinic. We've got 1,000 people on antiretrovirals (ARVs) but strangely enough, people would only come between 4am and 6am because they were afraid to be seen. I had to say let me make an effort to... let these people know what it is to come out and say they are HIV-positive, and when they take the ARVs you immediately see the change.
"It does not end there; when we have the weekly lekgotla [royal meeting] with all my indunas [village headmen], we speak about HIV, that it is not a myth, it's a reality. We even have rural doctors come to the lekgotlas to talk about HIV.
"I realized that [we needed] to have an intervention with the youth... The challenge was where to start with this thing because it was not a government programme. I had to sit down to find out who can fund us. We joined hands with the private sector; you cannot expect government to fund everything.
Someone told me that Elton John had a foundation that worked with AIDS and that he was coming to South Africa, so I went to see him. There I found him, a short guy with money and I said, ‘Oh mulungu (white person), I am coming to you,' and I started telling him my story. He said, ‘When I go back to London I’m going to raise money for you with one song,' and he did. It was like manna coming from heaven and those kids [in the project] were so excited. We created a legal body, a trust, for the funds and a team of external auditors. You have to work with other groups in the community.
"It's not that traditional leaders don't want to help, it's just that many don't know how to start; they think this is not their baby, that this is an issue for the Department of Health. But as traditional leaders we need to own our communities. Anyone with problems, like a quarrel or a death, they go to the traditional leaders first. We need to be advocating against things like gender-based violence because it's only us as traditional leaders that can help. Traditional leaders are the first social worker [a woman] sees because they don't see a traditional leader as a foreigner."
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