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What does it mean to be HIV-undetectable or to have a suppressed viral load?

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With medication and technology, science is increasingly improving the lives of people living with HIV and reducing new infections.


On August 8, 2018, a day before Women’s Day in South Africa, 23-year-old Saidy Brown observed six years of being on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. 

We meet Brown in her hotel room in Benoni in the East Rand in the South African Province of Gauteng.

She sits still, reflecting on her life after a long and busy day. She has just returned from a group meeting with other young HIV activists.

Her t-shirt is unapologetic and as loud as her activism. “HIV POSITIVE #TEST & TREAT,” it reads. In the dim light of her room, she recollects her dark journey to becoming an HIV activist.

Brown was diagnosed with HIV at birth. However, she only found out she had it at the age of 14.

Brown grew up in a small town called Itsoseng in the North West Province of South Africa. In June 2009, while attending a youth day event, Brown and some of her friends decided to get tested for free.

The eager teen received some pre-counselling from one of the nurses.

“I remember getting into that room and the lady asked me two questions, ‘what would you do if you find out that you are HIV negative’?”

“I would continue living,” Brown said.

“What will you do if you find out you are HIV positive?”

“I would go out there and educate people living with HIV,” she said to the nurse.

Brown tested positive. Her whole life changed in the space of five minutes.

“After she told me, the first thing I said was ‘how? I didn’t do anything, I am only 14’.”

While her friends were discussing their results, Brown broke the news to them. They were all surprised.


Saidy Brown’s t-shirt is unapologetic and as loud as her activism. “HIV POSITIVE #TEST & TREAT,” it reads. Picture: Karen Mwendera

“I then told them ‘no, I’m kidding, I am negative’.”

Brown was ashamed and could not confide in anyone.

“I really wanted to go home and cry. Like, I didn’t even know where I got it from,” Brown says.

She was afraid of what her family, friends and community would think of her. For months, she kept it to herself. But the secret about her health was too overwhelming.

Later that year, Brown joined a drama club. They rehearsed for a play to be staged on  World AIDS Day, on December 1. She played the daughter of a woman who was HIV positive.

Little did her peers know that Brown was actually telling her real life story. A few days later, conversations with Brown’s drama teacher got her to divulge her secret.

She later gathered up the courage to confide in her aunt. Her aunt then revealed that Brown’s late parents had indeed been HIV positive.

“I was angry at my aunt for not having tested me earlier on, I was angry at my parents for having died before me knowing, I was angry at God, I was just angry at everyone,” she says.

She turned to writing to cope.  The first piece she wrote was titled An Open Letter To HIV.

“I will always remember this line because I paused there and I cried so much. There is a line where I said, ‘because of you I feel less pretty’.”

This marked the beginning of her activism. She shared the letter on social media and it reached thousands.

For 14 years, Brown had lived a healthy life with the disease without any treatment. Brown disclosed her status to close friends and received huge support.

It was only when she turned 18 that her health began to deteriorate. Hesitant to start treatment, Brown thought about the rumors she heard about the side-effects of ARV.

When she went for blood tests, she was told her CD4 count had dropped. According to experts, when the CD4 count drops below 200, a person is diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

READ MORE |The Fight for Rights: Five Gains and Five Losses for Women in 2018

“I think that was when reality started kicking in that ‘you need to be on treatment’,” she says.

In 2012, she finally started ARV treatment. Since then, Brown has been living a healthy life

She uses her experience to encourage others living with HIV and to break the stigma. In June 2017, she recited An Open Letter To HIV at the eighth South African AIDS Conference addressing HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.

She held governments and societies accountable.

The same year, she received the Red Ribbon Foundation Youth for Change HIV/AIDS Activist Award.

In 2018, she was recognized as one of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans, for her work as an activist.

Brown considers herself an “HIVictor” and reaches thousands on her social media platform spreading awareness about the disease.

“There is life after an HIV diagnosis,” Brown shared with her followers on Twitter.

HIV-Undetectable

Today, Brown is HIV-undetectable.

She has been virally suppressed for two years now.

According to a report by UNAIDS in 2018, being undetectable means that the virus is un-transmittable.

This means that people who are HIV positive with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV sexually.

This was proven in 2017.

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl is a clinician and general practitioner with a special interest in HIV and women’s health.

She also uses her social media to spread awareness on the disease.

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl. Picture: Supplied

“The aim of ARV treatment is to achieve an undetectable or suppressed viral load. What is the viral load? It is the number of HIV copies in the blood. HIV uses CD4 cells to make copies of itself. If one is taking ARV treatment, the efficacy of the treatment is proven by an undetectable viral load. You’re still living with HIV, but you’re taking the treatment so well that the virus cannot make copies of itself,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

“The viral load blood test tells us when undetectable levels have been reached and it takes 12 to 24 weeks to achieve this,” Van Zyl says.

Three significant studies were done between 2007 and 2016 on sexual transmission of HIV among thousands of couples.

According to UNAIDS: “In those studies, there was not a single case of sexual transmission of HIV from a virally-suppressed person living with HIV to their HIV-negative partner.”

“For many people living with HIV, the news that they can no longer transmit HIV sexually is life-changing. In addition to being able to choose to have sex without a condom, many people living with HIV who are virally suppressed feel liberated from the stigma associated with living with the virus,” UNAIDS says.

However, the stigma still does exist.

A 28-year-old millennial, who requested not be named, tells FORBES AFRICA that she had never heard of what it means to ‘undetectable’.

When asked if she would be willing to have sexual relations with someone who was HIV positive but their viral load was undetectable, she says she is unsure.

“I would but I would be worried because mistakes happen. What if medical practitioners thought it was undetectable but they made a mistake and now my life is at risk,” she asks.

She is not alone in thinking this way.

From a quick social media search, it is evident many users are not well-informed about what an undetectable viral load means.

Some social media users who disclosed to be living with HIV said that even their own doctors had not informed them about what it meant to be ‘HIV undetectable’.

Through hashtags such as #UequalsU and #UndetectableEqualsUntransmittable, awareness around being ‘HIV undetectable’ has spread globally, giving freedom to many HIV positive people to share their status.

“[These are] the hashtags of the century, in my opinion! What does #UequalsU mean? If the viral load is undetectable, then one cannot transmit HIV!” Van Zyl says.

It is such activism that has contributed to the strides in HIV research.

A doctor from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg agrees.

“I think that’s what makes the HIV space unique. Those activists are crucial… When patients talk, they talk as if they don’t have a voice, but with the activists, they have a voice and they are taken seriously and I think that has also been one of the big drivers,” Dr June Fabian, a nephrologist and clinical researcher at the medical center, tells FORBES AFRICA.

Transplanting to save a life

Two years ago, doctors from the transplant unit at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre performed what is believed to be the world’s first HIV positive liver transplant.

Currently, the center is the only transplant program doing transplants from one living person to another in southern Africa. 

The liver of a mother living with HIV was transplanted into her critically-ill HIV negative child.

After the transplant, the child was monitored and the doctors were not able to find HIV within the child’s system.

The child had been on a waiting list for more than 180 days and was frequently admitted for life-threatening complications of end-stage liver disease.

Professor Jean Botha led the procedure.

He was approached by the child’s mother to consider using her as her baby’s donor.

“We have had a case where we proposed the idea but the mom said, ‘I cannot live thinking that I’ll give HIV to my child’, and she said ‘no’, and the baby died,” Fabian, who was a part of the team, says.

It was a very complex situation.

They reviewed the implications of the transplant, consulted with other experts and then spoke to the ethics committee at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

“They came back and said, ‘if you are weighing up this child dying versus giving the child HIV then do it because, obviously, you want to prevent the child from dying’,” Fabian explains.

With the go-ahead, the team proceeded with the operations and assumed that the child would have the virus after the procedure.

But their assumptions were wrong.

“After the transplantation, we saw a seroconversion event. What that means is that the child became HIV positive,” Professor Caroline Tiemessen from the Wits School of Pathology and Centre for HIV and STIs, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in a report.

Soon after, they observed that the virus was no longer detectable. They then monitored the child’s antibodies and tested the viral load, however, she said it has remained undetectable since.

They have since not been able to trace the virus within the cells of the child.

“The liver is an immune organ so it’s the liver’s job to kill bugs… so I think in a way we might have struck it lucky with the liver. I don’t know if we can say what happened here is going to happen with a heart, a kidney or a lung,” Fabian says.

Despite not being able to detect the virus, the child was placed under ARV treatment.

Fabian says the only way to know for sure that there is no HIV in the child is if they completely stop treatment.

However, it would be a risk.

In 2017, a similar case was announced where a nine-year-old South African who had been diagnosed with HIV at a month old, received treatment, and then maintained remission after suppressing the virus for almost nine years without the treatment since 2008.

It has been more than a year since the liver transplant took place and both the mother and child are recovering well.

According to Fabian, they plan to continue doing more tests.

HIV Positive: The New Living Donor Pool?

At a time when South Africa is experiencing a shortage of organ donors, this may be a solution to the problem if people living with HIV may be able to donate organs.

In the early 2000s, Fabian’s work dealt with organ transplants and HIV before ARVs were created.

“We started seeing the disease untreated, and there was a lot of kidney disease so that was what sparked my interest and I started a study in the clinic with patients with HIV and kidney disease,” she says.

However, HIV patients back then were excluded from transplantation.

“We were basically throwing away organs from HIV-positive donors because we weren’t using them,” she says.

Dr June Fabian. Picture: Supplied

With a shortage of organ donors, Fabian says they lost 25 children on the waiting list.

According to an article by theSouthAfrican.com, there are around 4,300 people waiting for organ donations in South Africa in need of new livers, kidneys, lungs or hearts.

“The inclusion of HIV-infected people as living donors created the new living donor pool,” say experts from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre.

This means that people like Brown who have been living with an undetectable viral load could be eligible as donors after tests have been done.

As for whether or not HIV-positive patients could potentially become blood donors, more work needs to be done in that field.

At the moment, Fabian does not think it is possible.

 “I don’t know if you would put someone on life-long antiretroviral for a blood transfusion. I don’t think the benefit outweighs the risk when you can source blood from non-infected donors and the person isn’t going to die if they don’t get the transfusion,”  Fabian says.

The evolution of ARVs

The first ARV treatment trial happened in the 1990s and in 2004, South Africa first rolled out its ARV program to people living with HIV.

ARV treatment has gone from taking several tablets a day to one pill daily.

 Now, patients, particularly in South Africa, can receive free treatment.

According to a report on HIV and AIDS financing by the South African Health Review, South Africa has the largest number of persons living with HIV and on ARV-treatment in the world, with this figure scaling up by approximately 400,000 persons per annum.

UNAIDS estimates there are 20% of people on ARV therapy globally.

HIV-related deaths have been decreasing as the number of people receiving ARVs is growing.

In 2008, the death rate was about 220,000 to 260,000 in South Africa.

In 2016, estimates between 96,000 to 140,000 of AIDS-related deaths in the country were reported.

“I think what is underappreciated is how much people’s lives have changed with ARVs and with access to ARVs and how much the science and the funding with ARVs has driven it from being a very complicated regimen to one tablet a day,” Fabian says.

And now, access to obtaining ARVs has become easier and they are getting smaller.

“The tablet is getting smaller and smaller, which is great for storage, great for carrying, makes it cheaper, it’s also easier to swallow,” says Professor Francois Venter, the Deputy Executive Director at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.

Last year, South Africa saw the introduction of an ATM which uses electronic and robotic technology to dispense medication.

This allows patients to collect medication without having to queue at hospitals.

On the continent, clinical trials of injectable ARV drugs are currently underway.

This is part of a large-scale trial that will be conducted in six other countries –Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Swaziland.

According to a news report in The East African, the aim of the study is to introduce an injection once every two months.

“They are starting to work on a new implant. It is very early days but it is very, very exciting. So instead of taking your ARVs you just get an implant every year,” Venter says.

“ARVs are looking more and more like hormonal contraception … It is like having several choices.”

He predicts that they will become available in the next five to 10 years.

 Other new developments include the HIV vaccine trial (please read more on pages 44-47).

 As HIV research grows rapidly, Fabian says that other chronic disease studies can gain from its developments.

“If you look at how we manage TB [tuberculosis], there is very little progress that has been anywhere as rapid as HIV, in terms of making treatment accessible and simple for people,” Fabian says.

Venter agrees: “The funny thing is people with HIV are now living longer than the general population in certain spaces.”

A study in the United States found this to be true.

In 2014, an estimated 45% of those HIV-infected were older than 50, amounting to 428,724 people, while 27% were older than 55 and 6% were 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, more work still needs to be done in this regard.

Venter says that technology has significantly aided HIV research.

“There are new ways to measure HIV which are getting more available and the price is coming down,” he says.

“There are also new ways for testing for HIV which are very exciting.”

“Because the cost of antiretrovirals has gone down so dramatically, HIV is actually relatively cheap to treat, compared to diabetes,” he says.

“It also keeps people away from the medical system which is very expensive,” he adds.

Despite the great strides taken to improve HIV treatment, a cure is still nowhere to be found.

“I think we are getting closer [to a cure] with vaccines,” Fabian says, hopeful.

Venter, on the other hand, believes we are still far from discovering a cure.

“I am not particularly hopeful because I think the scientific challenges of it are so hard that I am not sure it is going to be possible, but I hope I am wrong,” Venter says.

He says that there have been large amounts of money diverted to looking for a cure and that we are learning more about the immune system.

Professor Francois Venter. Picture:Supplied

“Even if we may not find a cure, we are going to learn a lot about vaccines and the complexity of the human body,” he says.

For now, the importance of spreading awareness is still essential. Activists like Brown and Van Zyl can attest to that.

The world has gone from a deadly epidemic, to undetectable victories and vaccines in three decades.

We are witnesses to history in the making. Where will you be when a cure is found?

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Going Once, Going Twice! The Evolution Of Auctions

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Online auctions are gaining popularity, but the traditionalists are still sold on the idea of live auctions that guarantee a good show, with emotions and bids running high.


In an industrialized area approximately 30 minutes from Sandton, the commercial hub of Johannesburg, is a shining fleet of trucks, parked and ready to be sold to the highest bidder.

The sun reflects off the windshields in the direction of the registered bidders as they sit under red outdoor umbrellas at the entrance of the property. 

Some opt for refreshments, while others make small talk with their competition.

A man uses this time to make phone calls to a mechanic, who discourages him from making a regrettable bid on a “non-runner”.

He runs towards the towering fleet of trucks, where he joins the eager buyers as they take a final peek before the auction begins.

We are at Aucor Auctioneers’ popular commercial auction, at their head office in Midrand.

After spending four hours traveling to Johannesburg from Nelspruit (in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province), for the auction, Charles Malibe gets into a heated bidding war that lasts no longer than a minute but is packed with plenty of fervent action.

Charles Malibe in a heated bidding war for a truck. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

It is noon and an overjoyed Malibe has just won a R465,000 ($32,401) bid on a second-hand truck.

“I attended my first auction three years ago. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get the right stuff at the right price. It is good to be exposed to new things. I went to Durban once, but I did not get anything there. It was not a waste. It is not only about getting things, it gives you exposure,” he says.

As Malibe heads back to Nelspruit, the auctioneer remains chanting until the last vehicle is sold, with the crowd getting smaller with each purchase.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant, manages the national marketing for the 51-year-old auctioneering company.

Digitalization has disrupted traditional norms of advertising, and has made the industry more accessible for both buyers and sellers. 

“Selling any asset boils down to supply and demand. The advantage of buying in an auction is cutting out the middleman, saving that money and getting something of real top value,” he says.

Wasim Babamia, Aucor Auctioneers’ multimedia consultant. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

 Marketing the call to action remains a vital component for the business. 

“Social media has to be on point when we market a particular auction,” Babamia says.

Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are some of the biggest platforms, apart from the traditional pamphlets and website advertising strategies.

According to Babamia, online bidding has pulled in more numbers over the past four years.

He sees a rapid transformation in the auctions landscape in the foreseeable future.

According to a South African Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) report, Gauteng is the highest province of interest with over 6,000 potential buyers (for all kinds of auctions including residential properties, retail vehicles, jewelry and collectables) on its website, while the Northern Cape is the lowest with just over 1,000 buyers.

The traditional means of auctioning have had to make way for digital platforms that have been steadily increasing over the last decade.

SAIA records close to 100,000 visitors to online auctions in 2010; the first half of 2019 is already at 400,000 visitors.

Last year’s record 600,000 visitors reflect that the online market could be just as lucrative as the live auctions.

READ MORE | ‘Stolen’ Tutankhamun Bust Puts Britain’s Museums And Auctioneers Back Under the Spotlight

As the state of the South African economy remains uncertain, Babamia suggests that auctioneering will always provide a cheaper option to consumers.

An industry that has been in existence for more than 2,000 years continues to grow despite its many iterations over the years.

Ancient Greek records on auctions dating as far back as 500BC show women were auctioned off to become wives.

Auctions were popular for family estates and the selling of war plunder in Rome.

As a result of the great depression in the 1900s, the United States opened auction schools to generate income as businesses and individuals needed to liquidate assets to withstand the economic crisis.

In recent times, market trends have changed dramatically to adapt to socioeconomic norms.

A shift to online auctioneering has been a great development and contributor to the fluid industry.

 Orbis Research reports that the global online auction market is expected to grow during the period 2018-2022 with a 7.2% compound annual growth rate.

“Another major trend witnessed in the online auction is the immense impact of artificial intelligence (AI). AI’s main role in an online auction is to perform different tasks such as processing internal operations, customer-service inquiries, delivery and product packaging. In the last years, AI has instigated a gradual shift, from conventional auction to online auction,” the report states.

The increase in sales of art-based goods through online auctions is a key market driver.

Traditional live auctions, however, are still a preferred option for bargain-hunters, despite the global steer towards digitalization.

This is according to fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. in the affluent northern suburb of Johannesburg, Houghton Estate.  

Fine art specialist Luke Crossley who manages Stephan Welz & Co. Picture: Gypseenia Lion

Moving to simpler models will improve the industry by providing a greater competitive edge, he says.  

“There is a growing interest and understanding of auctions across a broad section of people where, maybe, a couple of decades ago it was seen as just for the very rich people doing very rich things.

“People are realizing that it is a great way of finding weird and beautiful objects, artwork and furniture at quite reasonable prices,” he says.

The increase of auction houses in South Africa offers a variety to buyers and sellers, with SAIA having 80,546 members registered by April 2019. As a result, the art and design market is at an advantage.

“The South African art market on auction is always evolving and broadening. The importance to history and art history is being realized and there is a growing interest and demand for these. It is encouraging a lot of the younger artists working with galleries to look at the history and heritage of artistic practice in this country,” Crossley says.

“With growing appreciation for South African and African art overseas, a couple of international houses based in England regularly do sales of more historical work. The audience overseas means a lot for the artists, the country and the future.”

Selling or buying art on auction engages the audience as well as the creator.

“The gallery, thus, becomes the primary market where young artists can build their careers; whereas auctions and private individuals with a passion for art can sell work they own, re-invest in other artists, or buy.

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‘South Africans Love Martyrs’

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The first 100 days of any presidency are often harshly scrutinized as they set the tone for what citizens expect. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is under the magnifying glass as all await his next tactical move.


At the end of May, South Africa’s sixth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, took an oath of office at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. In his speech, he touched on many issues that resonate with South Africans, including corruption, poverty, equality and youth unemployment.

These burning matters prelude what is to be expected from him in his first 100 days in office.

Ramaphosa’s period at the helm of power (before the elections) has been typified by repeated calls for a ‘New Dawn’. It seems the man who made it to the 2019 Time magazine list of 100 Most Influential in the world has a laundry list of issues to attend to if he is to set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Looking Back At The Vibe Of The South African Elections

The challenge that has deeply affected how South Africans and investors view the country is that of corruption.

“Let us forge a compact for an efficient, capable and ethical state, a state that is free of corruption, for companies that generate social value and propel human development… We must be a society that values excellence, rewards effort and rejects mediocrity,” Ramaphosa said at his inauguration on May 25.

 In the first 100 days, analysts say he needs to demonstrate he is a proactive leader; one who takes decisive action to address the plight of those who live in a society as unequal as South Africa. The gaping chasm between the richest and poorest has widened since the end of apartheid 25 years ago. This information is not lost on citizens whose lived experiences and disenchantment were in evidence during the elections.

A specialist in social economic development and political commentator, Kim Heller, is of the view that Ramaphosa has some way to go to address the resolutions of his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

 “There are critical social maladies that need to be treated with the urgency they deserve… One of the key things people are looking for is a decisive man and decisive leadership,” she says.

Political analyst, Prince Mashele, ventures: “He is yet to act on resolutions because he is navigating complex political infighting in the ANC, which is why he can’t move boldly and faster…”

Economic transformation has been seen to also imply redistribution of the means of production, which currently has been reiterated in the call for land redistribution without compensation. This is among the duties citizens and investors will keep a close eye on as it is a contentious matter.

Leading up to the elections, Ramaphosa said to apprehensive farmers, “the land reform process is something we should never fear. It is going to be done in terms of the constitution”.

Heller says that, “the question of land is unresolved, despite very solid ANC resolutions from branches, and despite extensive consultation”.

The president will to have to choose whether he wants to be investor-friendly or whether he wants the interests of his own political party to find expression in policy.

“The investors have become the supreme branch of the ANC. So Ramaphosa certainly, is spending a lot of time on their concerns rather than ordinary people…,” Heller says.

READ MORE | Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections

Mashele echoes: “He has been a market-friendly president. He has railed against his comrades calling for the nationalization of the [South African] Reserve Bank”.

Another matter influencing investment into the country is red tape that inhibits instead of encouraging business. South Africa dropped from 34 out of 181 countries on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking in 2009 to 82 out of 192 countries last year, leaving the country trailing its African peers, including Mauritius (20), Rwanda (29) and Kenya (61).

In his address to the nation, Ramaphosa continued with the mantra thuma mina (which means ‘send me’) and committed to continue to build South Africa. In his rebuilding, he will have to take a closer look at the factors that infringe on those looking to conduct business while straddling the line in ensuring that (natural) resources are not further depleted while failing to trickle down to those who need it the most.

Heller is of the view that the expectations created by the president serve as a double-edged sword: “Some quarters have built him up to be the Messiah we have all been waiting for. He may have embraced that but it’s actually going to damage him. Because there is no individual who can save this country without looking at doing serious things in terms of economic restructuring… Until we address structural issues in this country, shifting the economy to favor ordinary people, not markets, we actually aren’t very benevolent.”

Also affecting business has been the view that South Africa is amongst the most corrupt on the continent and viewed as one of the murder capitals of the world. The Zondo Commission has illustrated the stark reality of the malfeasance the president will have to address to change these perceptions and in so doing, hold high-profile individuals accountable.

READ MORE | Ticking The Right Boxes: Will The South African Elections Come Down To The Wire?

 In line with building an equal society, the president made mention of the prevalence of violence against women at his inauguration.

“Let us end the dominion that men claim over women, the denial of opportunity, the abuse and the violence, the neglect, and the disregard of each person’s equal rights. Let us build a truly non-racial society, one that belongs to all South Africans, and in which all South Africans belong. Let us build a society that protects and values those who are vulnerable and who for too long have been rendered marginal,” Ramaphosa said.

Leading up to the resolution of the president’s first 100 days in office, the public is watching with bated breath. 

“I pity him. He’s made big promises on housing and unemployment. Those are not going to magically change overnight. The problem with South Africa is that we love martyrs and here we have a president that we have martyred and who is actually going to fall on that. To replace one man with another, is not going to replace problematic policies, poor implementation and poor conceptualization of economic solutions. So I think in the next 100 days, I don’t expect to see anything unless the fundamentals are changed,” Heller says.     

No doubt, it is going to take a concerted effort from all institutions, including those that have been revealed to be compromised. The first 100 days will certainly determine the rest of the president’s term in office.

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Lifting The Heavy Veil On Wedding Costs

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With pockets as deep as gold mines, how far are couples willing to go to have the picture-perfect luxe wedding?


The lagoons overlook the snow-white beaches with its swaying coconut trees, embraced by the turquoise waters of the sea in the island nation of Mauritius. It’s a scene straight out of a movie, with a couple cavorting in the distance.

Over 100 guests from South Africa have also gathered on these sands for the weekend wedding of businessman Lebo Gunguluza and his long-term girlfriend Lebo Mokoena. 

The total cost of this union: almost $300,000. 

“I didn’t mind exceeding the budget, because you only do this once,” says new bride Mokoena.

The couple flew over 30 guests and provided them with five-star accommodation at the LUX* Grand Gaube.  Part of the guest contingency included the behind-the-scenes crew for the wedding, as well as the speakers who had to spend four to seven days in Mauritius to prep up.

“We did not want to have a local wedding because we wanted our guests and family to have a different experience. We also wanted our family members who did not have passports and have never flown out of the country to experience a different country,” Gunguluza says.

Snow-white beaches of Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

The weekend celebrations started on a Friday last September with a cocktail meet-and-greet party. Belly dancers who were dressed in floral red and yellow danced the evening away with guests, with a local band taking them to the all-white party on Saturday.

This was just a build-up to the romantic wedding reception with shades of blush, ivory, and gold which was to take place on Sunday at 4PM.

“Every time I think about that day, I want to do it again,” the new bride says.

The couple chose not to have bridesmaids and groomsmen and the guests were encouraged to dress in black and white.

“I didn’t have bridesmaids because it makes you choose between your friends. I felt that if you got an invite to our wedding, you were worthy enough. So, we wanted everyone to be bridesmaids and groomsmen. I think we made it intimate and everybody felt like they were VIPs,” says Mokoena.

Everything fit perfectly as the bride’s two white wedding dresses were designed by Antherline Couture.

For the ceremony, she wore a white ball gown with a diamanté top heavily embellished with beads; while the groom looked dapper in a white tuxedo jacket designed by Master Suit SA.  

The color white was indeed conspicuous.

“I have always felt that white is pure and because I was signing my life away, I felt I needed to be pure, hence I said my husband needed to wear white as well,” she adds.

The lavish white wedding was organized by renowned wedding planner Precious Tumisho Thamaga who ditched her seven-year career in Public Relations & Marketing to become an event planner.

Thamaga organizes events and weddings for affluent clients such as the Gunguluzas.

“They are busy people and they don’t have time to do the administration and the back and forth of vetting in suppliers,” Thamaga says, as she takes over the pain of wedding planning.

Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza (middle) with wedding guests in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

While working in the corporate world, she had attended many weddings that she felt were put together in a way that created a disconnect between the guests and the wedding couple.

“So I saw an opportunity in the fact that there were not a lot of wedding planners that were black,”  Thamaga says. 

She decided to focus on corporate clients in order to turn her passion into a profitable business.

“A lot of people did not expect a black person to be professional and take the business seriously.

“It was not just a hobby or someone helping out a family. It was an actual business and I made sure that I got taken seriously from the onset,” Thamaga says.

In order for Precious Celebrations (the name of her company) to prosper, she had to have a business strategy in place.

“I made sure that I put a lot of time and effort and strategized properly what it was that I wanted to actually focus on, and find a niche [in]. I believed that would separate me from somebody that was already in the industry,” Thamaga says.

However, her job is not always alluring.


Lebo Mokoena and Lebo Gunguluza’s wedding in Mauritius. Picture: Supplied

“When I started in the industry there weren’t so many wedding planners and now it is a different story and everyone thinks it is easy-peasy and it is glamorous,” she says. 

Planning a luxurious wedding takes eight to 12 months and can cost anywhere between R300,000 ($20,813) to R4.5 million ($312,203).

The most expensive wedding Thamaga planned was for a public figure she cannot disclose the name of. 

“It was a destination wedding and the experience from when the guests arrived to the wedding day was memorable. When they arrived, we had a cocktail party and we had activities like canoeing and on Sunday we had an all-white party. [This is] so that people don’t depart on Sunday and may leave on Monday.” 

Only the affluent sign up.

“The smallest wedding that I have had to plan had 80 people and it cost R2 million ($138,000),”  Thamaga says.

She has turned away some clients in the past because their budget was insufficient for the type of wedding they envisioned. 

Thamaga organizes 26 weddings, on average, annually, from countries such as Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and now she plans on taking her bespoke company global.

One of the unique aspects of her business is that she has maintained a good relationship with the suppliers she has in each country, and has kept her expenses to a minimum.

“The wedding planning-event planning industry is quite lucrative if you do it right. I am not the type that would have too much inventory because I want to feel like the inventory belongs to me; that would limit my creativity,” she says.

“I make sure that I don’t have a lot of expenses, I have coordinators that I have worked with for years and they have full-time jobs.”

Thamaga’s greatest challenge so far was whether or not to outsource other wedding planners when her business was increasing.

“It can be a bit daunting to realize that your business is growing,” she says.

But she opted to remain boutique.

“I had to decide that it is not about the money. I am building an empire where I want a legacy and an ongoing relationship with my clients.” 

She involves her clients every step of the way to bring their vision to an unforgettable reality, and believes that weddings are expensive because of the growing aspirations of the young.

“It is not just in South Africa, it is worldwide,” she says.

Despite the tangible costs of conducting these dream events, the wedding industry in South Africa is largely unregistered as it is a fluid market where services and costs are difficult to track and document accurately.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied

Africans, no doubt, spend millions per year on costs associated with marital ceremonies. This is the reality of the unregistered wedding industry. Despite the recession and slow economic growth, the wedding industry continues to attract many entrepreneurs to its lucrative opportunities.

As, people never stop getting married.

The Marriages and Divorces report released by Statistics South Africa last May shows an upward trend in civil marriages. Civil marriages increased by 0.6%, from 138,627 marriages registered in 2015 to 139,512 in 2016.

A wedding dress is an important part of a celebration and the bridal couture market continues to show growth.

Wise Guy Reports Database Global Wedding Dress Market Insights, forecast to 2025, states: “The wedding market demand grows continually, and the wedding garments market has notable increase every year. In this case, the competition is also very intense among companies. The involved companies should seize the opportunities to expand the gold mine.”

A previous client of Thamaga’s has spent R200,000 ($13,876) on two wedding dresses and this is nothing for Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. 

He moved to South Africa in 1992 at a time when African designs were not being celebrated globally. 

Twenty years ago, Eboka sold wedding dresses for R15,000 ($1,041) a piece, and now sells for R250,000 ($17,344) a piece, depending on the design. 

“A designer of my caliber in South Africa is undersold because there are people in the United States selling wedding gowns for $250 and I am here selling them for maybe $80, it just doesn’t make sense. It shows that our economy is really bad because a designer of my caliber should be operating on the same level as them, or very close,” Eboka says.

He is a luxury designer. 

“When you think of luxury, it is not just the product, it is not just the textile – it is the whole experience from when you drive in, to when you sit down and have the designer talk to you and learn about your life. The whole artistic process contributes to the cost value of the gown.”

He says that the reason wedding gowns are expensive is because they are meant to be timeless pieces.

“Traditionally, wedding gowns are classical couture. It is not like the normal evening dress that you wear to look beautiful on one night. A wedding dress is like training for the Olympics. You train for them for the rest of your life,” he says.

Eboka also says when designing a wedding gown, you need to take time to know the client, family and their fancies in order to meet the clients’ need.

The material of the wedding gown is usually expensive because he sources the textiles from across the world, and he takes two to three months to create a gown, depending on the embellishments.

Fred Elu Eboka, a Nigerian designer who dresses delegates as well as the rich and famous. Picture: Supplied 

“My designs have a lot of artistry,” he says.

Eboka is a wealthy man but he still believes that the industry is not as lucrative as it could be.

“But we do well, without being arrogant about it… You have to be fully aware of the industry and have the intellectual capacity to understand the potential of the market,” he says.

Pictures are an important element of a wedding because they capture the moment for life.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West meets his clients in a restaurant so he can get to know them better and learn the history of their relationship.

“We, as photographers, need to click with each couple, it is actually vital because we are going to be in their space from the beginning to end.

“So, when we do not gel, we are going to find ourselves in an awkward situation on the day because we, as photographers, are also problem-solvers. We don’t just take pictures on the day,” West says.

His packages start from R18,000 ($1,248) to R60,000 ($4,163) and he says it is because the couple is paying for the quality of the work. His packages include waterproof genuine leather-bound photo albums that he says last a lifetime, as well as 500 images that are both edited and unedited. He also arranges the location for the photoshoots.

“It is more than about taking pictures on the day, anybody can take pictures but the work that I do has more of a boutique feel,” he says.

“You pay to have something like this on the table that will last you a lifetime,” West says.

He does not only take pictures on the day but the photoshoots can take up to three months.

“Each couple that I take pictures of has a different story and that is where I draw my inspiration.”

West says that it takes a while for the business to get to a point that is profitable because photographic equipment is expensive.

“In the beginning, it is unfortunately not lucrative because you have to look into getting the equipment that is up to standard, however, it took me about seven years where I could get to a point that I could make a business out of it,” West says.

International award-winning photographer Daniel West with his clients. Picture: Supplied

His annual turnover before expenses is R800,000 ($55,502) and he has about 25 clients a year.

He believes that the industry is regarded as valuable in South Africa and it is growing because people are becoming more enlightened about the photography industry. And social media has become an important motivator driving this industry.

“It is vital to have a good photographer for your wedding, because you as a bride are not quite educated of what is out there and what is not [in terms of photography].”

A good photographer needs to have foresight.

“The quality and charisma of your photographer is really one of the most important things you pay for because if something were to go wrong on your wedding, like rain, what does your photographer do? Do they stand back or make a plan?” he says.

Other luxe services associated with weddings include limos and chauffeur services, and florists, live music bands and gourmet caterers flown from around the world. The more money you are willing to throw, the more sparkling the champagne, crystal and caviar on the beach

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