back to top

HIV Activist In South Africa Assaulted, Left For Dead

The attack on Sthembiso Memela was the first on a member of the Treatment Action Campaign, a national organization focusing on HIV/AIDS work.

Posted on

A South African HIV/AIDS outreach worker was assaulted and left for dead in the east of the country on Thursday night, according to a local health advocacy group.

Sthembiso Memela is the provincial treasurer of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a national organization advocating for equitable access to HIV/AIDS treatments in South Africa. Memela was assaulted after leaving a TAC meeting in Elandskop, in KwaZulu-Natal province.

"On his way to his granny's house, he was attacked by unknown men," Mzamo Zondi, the provincial coordinator, told BuzzFeed by phone from Pietermaritzburg, the second-largest city of eastern coastal province. "They came behind him…knocked him down, and they hit him all around his body. Then they took him to the middle of the street. That one, that is clear that they were doing it with a hope that a car will come and run over him. People would say he was involved in a car accident."

Memela was rescued after an unknown passer-by reported seeing his body in the street; he was taken to the local hospital, where Zondi met with him yesterday.

Zondi said Memela was found unconscious with his cell phone, a wallet full of cash, and other valuables, ruling out robbery as a motivation for the attack.

Police in Elandskorp could not confirm whether an investigation had been opened because the station commander had gone home for the day.

TAC members have received threats for their work in the past, but this it the first time one of its members has been assaulted, Zondi said.

"Some of us, to be honest, we fear now to go to some communities until further investigation is done. But some of us are going to continue with our work," he said. "We can't deny that we are threatened by this situation. We are concerned."

TAC was founded in South Africa in 1998 and has become one of the most prominent AIDS activism groups in Africa. It campaigned against former South African President Thabo Mbeki's infamous denials of the existence of HIV/AIDS. The group has played a key role in major treatment and health access initiatives, including the fight for generic drug availability and free access to treatment for all HIV-positive mothers.

Zondi said there is nothing to suggest this attack may be linked to anti-homophobic sentiment stirred by Uganda's new law punishing homosexuality with life in prison and outlawing LGBT advocacy. A handful of HIV clinics in Kenya temporarily shut down last week after anti-gay protests sparked by the Uganda law, HIV activists told BuzzFeed.

Though TAC says it is strictly apolitical, it has been an outspoken critic of some government health policies, and the organization sometimes draws the ire of local politicians.

At the meeting Memela attended before his attack, TAC members were planning the release of the group's "people's health manifesto." In South Africa, manifestos are a common tool of political parties, like American political platforms, and "manifesto" can therefore be a sensitive word.

"An actual manifesto is for political parties. TAC is a non-profit health organization," Zondi said. "We will invite all political parties in one big meeting to discuss it, but I can't say more about it, except that we will release it soon."

South Africa will have a general election May 7.

Jina Moore is the global women's rights correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Berlin.

Contact Jina Moore at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.