Phindile Sithole-Spong is a powerful woman. Slight in stature, with a shock of crimson on her lips, and a purple mini dress encompassing her curves, she’s an honest testament to the idea that dynamic personalities are contained in tiny packages – a far cry from the emaciated and bleak imagery that has been sold to the world as the picture of HIV/AIDS.
Phindi lights up the room when she enters it. It’s a tired saying, perhaps, but there are few other ways to describe the effect of her presence. Beautiful, witty, and ferociously candid, her magnetic charisma is near impossible to ignore.
Within minutes of meeting the HIV-isionary – a term coined by Phindi herself – it feels as if you’ve known her for years. She commands the attention of the room, but it doesn’t feel affected; she’s a natural speaker, one that you find yourself fervently eager to listen to. The nature of her character belies her tender age.
At 19 years old, she discovered that she was HIV-positive. Having contracted the virus at birth, she was rushed to hospital with full-blown AIDS. She talks about the aftershock of her diagnosis, and thoughtfully explains the process of coming to accept her position. “If I didn’t have HIV I’m not sure I would be as open,” she admits. “It exposes you to a point where you feel a connection to everyone and everything and you become more human.”
Her candor is palpable. She speaks at length about almost any topic – from sex and relationships, to her family and adoption. She lives her life openly – and with good reason. Balking at the idea that her status is any way shameful, Phindi is cognisant that the strongest declaration she can make is to live her truth. It’s a powerful statement in a world that still tends to ostracize the HIV positive.
Despite all that the world has learned about the virus over the past few decades, the stigma remains. As HIV became Phindi’s reality, so too did fighting the stereotypes. Her response was to establish Rebranding HIV, an HIV and sexual health consultancy firm that strives to change the common misconceptions that surround the virus.
One of those misconceptions is the idea that relinquishing ones sexual identity is part and parcel of living with HIV. Phindi laughs at the idea. “There’s this idea that we stop being sexual beings,” she says. “But I think that’s part of what is perpetuating the spread of HIV today.”
It’s a refreshing take on a topic that has been dissected at length by the public for years. This surface-level interrogation of the virus is exactly what Phindi is fighting. She is working to illuminate the humanity that often gets lost amidst the fear mongering. “I’m still a human being irrespective of my status,” she says. “Yes, there’s this thing called HIV but, before that, there’s a human being and that’s the most important and beautiful part that we should pay attention to.”