An outspoken activist against HIV-related stigma, Mabizela was one of the founding members of ANERELA+, the African forerunner of the international network she would later lead, and the first woman faith leader speaking openly about her HIV status. Despite being known as an HIV and gender activist, Mabizela never allowed HIV to define her. She travelled nationally and internationally as a speaker, facilitator, and workshop presenter, to equip faith communities to address gender injustice and the challenges of HIV.
In their reflections, participants highlighted her energy, passion, and compassion, her commitment to challenging and transforming faith leaders and unhealthy theologies, her no-nonsense approach, her depth of commitment and dedication, her hospitality, her big hugs, and her sense of humour. The diversity of people who mentioned their deep relationship with her and the support they received from her is a testament to her ability to transcend boundaries – of sex, class, age and religious tradition - and connect with people.
WCC deputy general secretary Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri said: “Phumzile was passionate about the ecumenical movement. She believed and lived the peace and justice agenda of the ecumenical movement. She constantly encouraged the WCC to provide leadership by including people living openly with HIV in its staff team. ‘Nothing about us without us’ was a message she encouraged all the time.”
Prof. Dr Sarojini Nadar, previously from the School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics, University of KwaZulu Natal and now the Desmond Tutu SARChI Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape remembers Mabizela’s co-development role in the contextual Bible study methodology and in the Tamar Campaign, a Biblical response against sexual violence, at the time when she was with what was then known as the Institute for the Study of the Bible: “Her ability to facilitate contextual Bible study in a faith space challenging faith leaders and laypeople about their deeply held patriarchal beliefs, with both humour and integrity, was nothing short of inspirational. As a scholar, I learned a great deal from her, about how to bring theory and praxis together. It is easy to speak about her struggle against the stigma with regard to HIV, but the way in which she integrated this with issues of race, gender, and sexuality, as it relates to religion, and particularly to Christianity, is what makes her work so truly intersectional.” It is symbolic that the hands depicted on the original poster of the “Tamar Campaign: Breaking the Chains of Silence” are hers.
Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, programme executive for the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy remembers Mabizela as a great teacher, and an exemplary believer in transformative discipleship, practicing hope and life-giving theologies.
Dr Manoj Kurian, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, describes her as “forthright and fearless in confronting the powerful in the global struggle for justice. She lived her deep commitment with compassion, extending her heart and her actions to serve the most marginalised.”
She died due to COVID-19 in Mbombela, South Africa. Her death is a stark reminder of the health inequality she campaigned against and became even more visible in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mabizela was a member of the Faith Advisory Council to the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and a member of the SANAC Legal and Human Rights Task Team. She guided many organisations as a board member and advisor, including Ujamaa Centre for Community Research, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, We Will Speak Out SA, and GIN-SSOGIE. She was also a member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. Before heading INERELA+, she was the senior policy advisor on gender justice in Southern Africa for Norwegian Church Aid and chief executive officer of the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council.
Faith communities and activist organisations, and individuals worldwide join her mother, two sons, daughter and the rest of her family in mourning. In her home language (isiZulu), there is a saying uwile umthi omkhulu; indeed, a giant tree has fallen.