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Popular South African  Radio Disc Jockey  Has AIDS

A prominent Johannesburg radio disc jockey announced last week that he is HIV positive. AIDS activists have praised him for helping fight the powerful stigma that surrounds AIDS in South Africa.

The radio station YFM is mainly for young people. It plays lots of the South African township rap known as kwaito, and it broadcasts out of a trendy shopping mall in one of Johannesburg's northern suburbs.

Last week, YFM listeners learned that one of their favorite deejays has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The disc jockey, Fana Khaba, who uses the name Khabzela on the air, said he had been getting sicker and sicker for months. After he had to be carried out of the studio one day, he finally agreed to take an HIV test. It was positive.

Khabzela decided his listeners had a right to know.

YFM station manager Greg Moloka says the station has been getting hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from listeners every day, offering support and help for Khabzela.

"So the response has been incredible," said Mr. Moloka. "And everyone is very positive, they are quite upbeat. So far people are happy he disclosed, because as a public figure who speaks largely to a young audience, it is important for him to always appear as a person who is real, through and through, whether in good times or in bad times. Props [congratulations] to him, he decided to go public."

The YFM website contains hundreds of messages posted by listeners after Khabzela's announcement. Many of them express admiration for the deejay's courage in admitting he has AIDS. A few are heartbreaking personal stories of fear and discrimination.

One listener says she learned a month ago that she, too, has HIV. She says she has been too terrified to tell her family or her boyfriend, who she believes infected her.

Khabzela himself is not giving media interviews. He is too sick to work, and is struggling to regain the use of his legs. But Mr. Moloka, the station manager, says Khabzela is positive and upbeat, and believes he will be back on the airwaves soon.

A few years ago, Khabzela was a taxi driver. Then he started hosting a show on a local community radio station, and eventually got a job at YFM, a relatively new but hugely popular commercial station. He catapulted into the spotlight, becoming not just a star, but also a role model for his young listeners.

Ironically, as a radio personality, Khabzela is known for promoting a positive lifestyle - no crime, no drugs, safe sex. Many people say he is even more of a role model now.

It is very rare for prominent or professional South Africans to admit publicly that they have HIV. AIDS activists such as Thanduxolo Doro said the main reason is fear.

"That is why we feel the epidemic is still underground in the country," explained Mr. Doro. "There are more people who are HIV positive who do not want to come out because of fear of being stigmatized - not only being discriminated against by insurance companies or banks or hospitals, but just being stigmatized by their own friends, by their spouses, by their neighborhood. That is the fear."

Mr. Doro is deputy director of the National Association of People With AIDS, and also a regular listener to Khabzela's Sunday-morning program on positive living. He says he and other HIV-positive activists have trouble convincing young people that AIDS can affect anyone.

Mr. Doro said Khabzela's announcement will help young people realize they need to protect themselves from the disease.

"So now if Khabzela comes out himself and states that he is HIV positive himself, it does send a good message to say in fact, it is not people who are relatively unknown," he said. "Even a person who is a radio personality, even a doctor, even a lawyer, whoever can in fact get HIV. So now if more people from prominent ranks come out and declare their status, people are going to wake up and smell the coffee."

Mr. Doro believes if more prominent South Africans followed Khabzela's example and disclosed their HIV status, it would help convince people to use condoms and take other steps to protect themselves from infection. And he says it would also help fight the stigma that has so many infected people living in fear.