At the age of 13, Ndumiso Gamede was orphaned when his parents died at the height of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic.
He had to raise his two young brothers – a grueling battle against isolation, stigma and poverty.
Gamede, now 28 years old, points to pictures of his parents hanging on the wall in a dimly lit garage box he calls home.
“They were both HIV positive,” he said.
He said he had no one to guide him through his most vulnerable teenage years and “almost did crime” to survive, and “drugs” to cope.
As World AIDS Day approaches on December 1, the plight of South Africa’s AIDS orphans remains a blot on a country that has otherwise made a huge breakthrough in the epidemic.
The national prevalence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS remains among the highest in the world at 13.7 percent.
But deaths have fallen dramatically, thanks to the rollout of antiretrovirals (ARVs) – drugs that, through a tragic combination of cost and political denial, were unavailable to poor South Africans when the disease was at its peak.
More than 5.4 million of the estimated 8.2 million infected people use ARVs in South Africa, which has one of the world’s largest HIV treatment programs.
The life-saving drugs also mean that the number of infected AIDS orphans has decreased, said Agnes Mokoto, who runs an orphan program at the Cape Town-based charity Networking HIV and AIDS Community of Southern Africa.
According to UNAIDS, there were 960,000 AIDS orphans in South Africa, compared to 1.9 million in 2009. Any child who has lost one or both parents to HIV is considered an orphan.
The hole in the country’s population pyramid caused by the epidemic resulted in a lost generation, especially of young parents.
“(In) the dark days at the turn of the millennium, people died en masse, and that created an army of orphans,” says Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, head of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.
Gamede’s parents died in a particularly painful moment, as AIDS denial took root in the South African government, beginning with the then president, Thabo Mbeki.
Misguided policies and the promotion of quack treatments caused more than 330,000 deaths, according to a Harvard University study.
Discrimination against people living with HIV was intense, and those orphaned by the disease felt it the most.
Gamede and his two brothers had to fight for survival after being shunned by his extended family.
“After my parents died, they turned their backs on us, they didn’t want to know… what we were missing,” he said deep in thought.
He lives in Vosloorus, a township 30 kilometers southeast of Johannesburg, full of dusty streets and makeshift homes.
Even getting documented is an added struggle for some orphans.
Nonhlanhla Mazaleni, head of an AIDS orphan shelter in Johannesburg, says she is caring for 21 young people living with HIV who have no ID because they were abandoned after being orphaned.
“One of the children is deaf, he came to us when he was two years old, he is now 24 and has no job and because he has no ID, he cannot claim disability benefits,” she said.
Now a new father of a kid, Gamede looks proudly at his computer screen as he plays his music video, singing along as he nods to the beat.
Next to Gamede’s bed is a gray baby cot, a foam mattress on the floor.
He finds solace in rap music while looking for work, which he says has proved difficult as he was unable to continue his studies.
He also receives groups of young people orphaned by HIV/AIDS and gives gardening lessons as a form of therapy.
But his life is tough.
If AIDS hadn’t devastated his family, Gamede believes that “opportunities…would have been easy. Life wouldn’t have been like this.”