Evelina Tshabalala discovered she was HIV positive at the age of 34 and has been living with the disease for 20 years. We speak to the inspirational athlete about her extraordinary journey.

Evelina (54) is a marathon runner, mountaineer and HIV activist from Cape Town. She was born in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal and moved to Cape Town at the age of 19 in search of job opportunities. Currently, she works for a communications company in the housekeeping department, and runs six kilometres a day when she gets off work at 5pm.

Evelina says her current goal is to complete grade 12, as she dropped out of school in grade 10 after falling pregnant. ‘I couldn’t go back to school,’ she says, ‘because I had to look for a job in order to provide for my family.’ She began doing domestic work and ran marathons in her spare time.

The grandmother of three was involved in a car accident 20 years ago that left her with a leg injury. In a routine check-up a blood test revealed that she was HIV Positive. She says she received counselling that prepared her to accept the test results. ‘When I was told that I was HIV positive, I just accepted it – what else could I do?’ she says.

Evelina says one of her closest friends died of an AIDS-related illness. ‘I spent a lot of time with her in the hospital, so I had some knowledge on HIV/AIDS, but I never thought I could get it,’ she recalls. She adds that she did not view her HIV status as a death sentence because death is inevitable for everyone.

Evelina felt that in order to move forward with her life she had to remain positive about the future and be open about her status. This meant disclosing her status to her siblings and her oldest son, who was in high school at the time.

‘My family accepted me and supported me and told me they loved me, and their acceptance was all that mattered to me,’ she says. Disclosing her status has enabled her to inspire and motivate people from all over the world and to challenge the stigma and discrimination around HIV/AIDS.

She is a ‘founding hero’ of Positive Heroes, an ‘educational, awareness and self-help action campaign that draws on the huge power that positive role models living with HIV have to change people’s responses to a deadly epidemic of silence and shame.’ Through Positive Heroes, Evelina travels around the country’s townships with fellow athletes who are living with HIV, giving motivational talks to encourage people to have a positive mindset. She is passionate about training women and children in the townships to become athletes.

‘Through this campaign, we wanted to show that it doesn’t matter what situation you are in; if you set your mind on a goal, you can achieve it,’ she says. ‘Sport can take children off the streets and provide them with an activity to focus on so they won’t have time to do crime or drugs, especially during school holidays. It also helps to instil discipline and respect.’

Through sports, Evelina has travelled the world and she met Nelson Mandela, which is what encouraged her to start mountain climbing. ‘The thought of meeting Mr Mandela in person was enough to get me involved in mountain climbing,’ she says with a smile.

“Most of the people making fun of you probably don’t even know their own status!”

Evelina is a phenomenal athlete; at the age of 54 she runs the
Two Oceans Ultramarathon (56 km), the Comrades Ultramarathon (89 km) and the Soweto Marathon (42 km) every year. She has also conquered three of the Seven Summits (the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents) – Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in Argentina – through a venture called Isicongo. Isicongo is a three-woman project founded by Evelina, Zukiswa Matamo and Nomawethu Nika.

Evelina’s most memorable summit was Mount Aconcagua, which is the highest in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres outside of Asia, in 2007. ‘I was treated like royalty on that summit,’ she smiles. ‘I received clothing from the sponsors because they were so impressed to see a person living with HIV climbing Mount Aconcagua.’

However, she retired from mountaineering after summiting Mount Elbrus, which was the most challenging for her. ‘I didn’t think I was going to make it because of the harsh conditions on the mountain,’ she says. ‘But sometimes you just have to take up the challenge.’

Evelina is currently on antiretro-viral (ARV) HIV medication. ‘I encourage people to take their medication exactly as per the doctor’s orders, to regain their strength and maintain a strong immune system,’ she says. She jokes that at the clinic they refer to ARVs as ‘peanuts’, in order to remove the stigma attached to them.

‘I also tell people that if you are HIV positive, accept your status and make peace with it, and if you have an HIV-positive family member, accept them and love them just as you did before, because people living with HIV are also human. People can laugh at you or gossip about you, but all that matters is that you know your status – and most of the people making fun of you probably don’t even know their own status!’

Evelina lives by the phrase, ‘God keeps me for a reason’. She believes that everything happens for a reason and that we should make the most of the time we have on Earth. 

Jet Club members have free access to our HIV Prevention Programme, 24/7. For advice and support on living with HIV/AIDS or for free tests and a 30-pack antiretroviral starter pack of medication if needed, call

SA & Namibia

0800 00 45 45 

Botswana, Lesotho & Swaziland

+2711 991 8258

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