I suspected that one of South Africa’s hottest disc jockeys, Fana Khaba, was desperately ill the moment a phone call moved the location of our interview. Instead of coffee in the center of a sprawling Johannesburg mall—I was told that the man fans call Khabzela couldn’t walk that far—we’d meet in a café by the parking garage. My first look at him confirmed this: A waiter was helping him to a table from the restaurant toilet.
I was shocked at his condition. Khabzela, 36, had spun gospel and house for Gauteng Province’s black youth on station Yfm since 1999. He launched an on-air club called Positive Youth of Gauteng—with positive meaning “goal-oriented.” (A former taxi driver, Khabzela would say, “If I can do it, anyone can.”) The club rapidly developed a cult following, and Khabzela talked up HIV prevention so regularly he was dubbed “Mr. Safe Sex.”
In May, he became the country’s first celebrity with a youth following to announce—on the air, no less—that he had HIV. South Africa has the most HIVers in the world, but its official attitude on the epidemic is confusing, to say the least, and stigma is strong. Still, thousands of messages poured into the station with love and support for Khabzela. When a local newspaper printed an editorial accusing him of hypocrisy for preaching safe sex when he clearly hadn’t been practicing it, Khabzela’s supporters were so outraged that the paper published a full-page debate the next week.
Yfm bought antiretrovirals for Khabzela, who told fans he was leaving to focus on his health. Doctors agreed that meds would help dramatically. But he tried them for only a few days—and refuses to say why he stopped. Some suspect they made him feel ill, and that, like many South Africans who use traditional medicine, he is skeptical of HAART. Now, he relies on homeopathic medicine and the garlic-and-olive-oil PWA diet prescribed by controversial Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
During our meal, Khabzela said, “I’m feeling shaky. I need raw garlic.” Then, requesting olive oil, he produced a bag of homeopathic pills. They didn’t seem to be doing any good. His speech was rambling, often incoherent. One minute, he bragged of his sexual exploits: “Often I had three women in a day. I go into Soweto now and look at the girls with HIV positive children and I think: All those children are mine—mine and God’s.” The next, he was weeping: “God has struck me with lightning.” As “punishment,” he will abstain from sex for three years. “What I want is a soulmate. A woman to live with me, cook with me, pray with me. When we’re 60, we’ll retire and run a center for [people with] HIV.” He has five children with five different women but seems very alone.
Yfm had hoped he’d be able to work again, even host a new show on life with the virus. “If he could just stabilize, he could become an icon for living positively with HIV,” Yfm’s Dirk Hartford said. “But the station has a responsibility to convey a clear message to people. At the moment, Khabzela is not in a position to do that. It’s a shame, because he has so much street cred. He has this incredible ability to connect with people.”
As we finished eating, a waiter came over and touched Khabzela’s hand. “How are you, sir?” he asked, thrilled to be in the DJ’s presence. His wide grin revealed a large gap in his front teeth. “Close the garage door, man!” quipped Khabzela, offering a glimpse of his old feisty self. The waiter walked away, still smiling.
In August, South Africa’s government announced it would begin supplying HIV meds to all who need them. AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, meanwhile, has started HAART after years of refusing the expensive meds to protest their inaccessibility to most South Africans. Will these developments inspire Khabzela? Though his reluctance to take HAART is for personal reasons, his influence means his decision will have an even bigger impact on South Africa’s young people.