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The challenge of raising teens in AIDS-ravaged South Africa

Thabang Thimbela's foster parents struggle to guide him and his foster sister Bulelwa through the temptations of adolescence.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / October 3, 2008

Parenting: Olga Thimbela (r.) is trying to prevent her teenage foster daughter Bulelwa and foster son Thabang from someday contracting AIDS in a country where 1 in 5 people is HIV positive.

Melanie Stetson Freeman

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Tshipesong, South Africa

On the way home from school, Thabang Thimbela stops off to visit his girlfriend, a few blocks from the tin shack where he and his foster parents and seven foster brothers and sisters live.

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The teenager has never told his foster parents, Olga Thimbela and Pontsho Monamodi, about Lebo, but they know about her all the same.

They know she has a baby girl by another father. They know that Thabang's friends are urging him to have sex with her. And they worry that Thabang may some day suffer the same fate as his mother, who died of AIDS in June 2006.

Thabang says he's not ready to have sex with Lebo – and in any case she won't agree to it until he graduates from high school. But Thabang still says he has to hide his relationship from Olga and Pontsho. "They will shout at me," he says. "Eish, it's a problem, but I love that girl."

The Monamodis are a family brought together by AIDS, a scourge that has killed nearly 4 million South Africans in the past two decades. With four foster children from one deceased sister and two more children from a deceased aunt, Olga and Pontsho have stretched their meager resources to keep everyone fed, clothed, and in school. But as the older ones mature, the young parents are now struggling to prevent AIDS from reaching the next generation.

Raising teenagers, and guiding them to make good decisions about sex, can test parents in the best of circumstances. But the Monamodis are raising their teens in a country where an estimated 1 in 5 citizens is HIV positive, and where nearly 1,000 people die from AIDS each day. And they have the additional challenge of raising children who have recently lost the only authority figure they have ever known, their parents, to AIDS.

Together with donors like the United States and the European Union, the South African government has launched a belated all-out war on HIV, providing anti-retroviral treatment free of charge to those diagnosed with HIV and trying to prevent future transmission with a mixture of education programs promoting abstinence, faithfulness to one's partner, and the use of condoms. But with only 28 percent of those in need receiving treatment as of 2007, South Africa's parents are a more reliable source of pressure to prevent HIV from reaching a new generation.

But Thabang's foster parents wonder if they can build a rapport fast enough to influence the decisions these youngsters may soon make about having sex?

A quiet young man

At Retlamile Secondary School, Thabang sits in the back of a classroom full of 10th graders. He's not the oldest in his class, at age 19, but he is among the smallest, and his classmates tease him constantly about his clothes and his back-country accent.

Recently, when Thabang was walking home in his brand-new black dress shoes, he found himself surrounded by six boys from his school. He remembered Olga's advice. "Here in Joburg," she said, "if somebody wants something from you, you give. If you see you can run, you run. If you fight back, they gonna kill you." Thabang gave his shoes and didn't return to school for several days, both out of fear and because his school's dress code requires black dress shoes.

Thabang has few friends at the school, and his grades – never great in his small hometown of Pampierstad – have suffered since he arrived in Johannesburg. He is repeating 10th grade after failing most of his classes last year. The one teacher that Thabang actually likes is Grace Lolwane, who teaches Life Orientation, a required course that covers health issues, including the risks of unprotected sex and drug or alcohol abuse.