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Thabo, the enigmatic earth angel who brought magic into my life

Thabo, the enigmatic earth angel who brought magic into my life

He was my best friend, but I wonder whether he knew how much I loved him.

As our friendship grew, I longed to learn more about Thabo's journey, beyond his farm upbringing and his stay at the hospice, where he was the youngest resident.

Thabo entered my life like an inkanyamba. In folklore, that is a storm known for its destructive force. Our friendship was chaotic, but his presence was meant to heal me.

At the time, I hadn’t realised I was broken. It was as if the heavens had sent a flawed angel to fix me.

I vividly remember our encounter in 1998. I had just returned to the Saturday Star from maternity leave and was juggling two junior roles: editorial assistant and entertainment reporter.

To transition to a full-time reporter, I needed news experience. My news editor gave me a chance, sending me to cover a struggling HIV/Aids hospice that doubled as a halfway house in Kensington, Johannesburg.

My task was to interview patients and write a heartfelt story about their experiences. As a novice, I was unprepared.

The patients at the hospice — mostly older, white, gay men — were not interested in talking to me.

Desperate for a story, I was drawn to a carefree young man who looked no older than a teenager. His name was Thabo.

He had come to Joburg from Worcester in the Western Cape, in search of his pot of gold. He wanted to be a musician.

Like his idol, gospel star Lundi Tyamara, he was determined to rise above his farm-labourer background and become a superstar.

Despite his limited education and lack of obvious talent, his confidence was unmatched.

He became a regular visitor to the Star building at 47 Sauer Street. Initially, I treated him like a news source, catering to his wants, such as coffee outings on the newspaper’s budget. Before long, the lines blurred, and we developed a full-blown friendship.

He was a walking extravaganza, sashaying into the building and stopping people in their tracks.

Because of his bold personality, Thabo clashed with some staff, especially the middle-aged receptionist, who disliked that he was gay and Xhosa.

He called her sana, an endearment for baby. She would insist that if he went to the mountain, the traditional Xhosa rite of passage, he would “stop this nonsense” of being gay.

I relied on his colourful personality to boost mine. We lived vicariously through each other. Once, he convinced me to forgo prescription glasses for hazel brown contact lenses. I looked ridiculous for a year.

As I re-entered the dating scene, I sought advice from Thabo. At 22, my culture dictated that having a child out of wedlock meant I had reached my sell-by date. I deserved to be with a much older man.

Thabo dismissed my lack of confidence, insisting I could have any man I wanted. He set high standards for my dates and preached that I needed to teach men how to treat me.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who hyped me as much as Thabo did. He would look at me with admiration. When pointing out my flaws, like my fashion sense, he would do so with kindness and a desire to correct them.

He wasn’t afraid to challenge authority, either. When I had problems with my managers, I turned to him for advice.

As our friendship grew, I longed to learn more about Thabo’s journey, beyond his farm upbringing and his stay at the hospice, where he was the youngest resident.

The hospice housed HIV-infected people and was also a shelter for homeless men. The founders did ministry work in Hillbrow, and that is where Thabo met them.

He never disclosed his status to me. He was very guarded, and I respected that boundary. I wanted to introduce him to my family. Yet, I hesitated.

Coming from a conservative home, I could not bring myself to introduce my gay bestie. I feared my parents’ reaction to his larger-than-life personality.

I contained our friendship to 47 Sauer Street. On occasion, it would spill onto the busy streets of downtown Johannesburg, where insults were flung at him for being gay.

Not one to take it lying down, he would fire back. We often had to flee from enraged strangers who threatened him with violence.

I have fond memories of my friendship with Thabo. He would ask to use the office phone to call his sister. The calls gave his family some relief. At least they knew where he was, even if he only called from time to time.

In 2000, I left the Saturday Star to join True Love in Sandton. I never heard from Thabo again.

Years later, his sister called me, having stumbled upon my number. It was during that conversation that I learned of his passing.

I am grateful to have met and known Thabo. He was an angel sent to sprinkle magic into my life. I still wonder whether I supported him enough. I wonder if he ever felt how much I loved him.

I can only hope so.

Aurelia Mbokazi

Change expert, Aurelia Mbokazi, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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