18 Nov 21 ICONS: Evelina Tshabalala
Adrian Steirn’s portrait of HIV positive athlete Evelina Tshabalala for 21 ICONS: South Africa captures the essence of a woman who keeps fighting no matter what life throws at her. Steirn says, “The Evelina portrait is all about a woman who just won’t give up, and despite everything she faces continues to pick herself up.” In the portrait Tshabalala is shown both crouching down and running forward on a double exposure captured on a single frame, offering a visual definition of perseverance.
One of eight siblings, Tshabalala started running to school as a child on a farm in Harrismith, Free State, where her family had been farm workers for four generations. After she completed Standard 4 (Grade 6) the family moved to Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, and although she continued her schooling, Tshabalala never completed matric. Soon after she gave birth to her first son when she was 17, she became a domestic worker in Durban.
In 1985, Tshabalala moved to Cape Town in search of a better income and it was here where, at 19 years old, she took up training, barefoot, at 4am each morning with a fellow athlete who encouraged her to enter her first race. She remembers: “He told me there is a race on Saturday, you want to go run? I was so excited I said yes, I want to. I didn’t have shoes, but I ran with my bare feet anyway. I remember it was June. We went to Sea Point and it was a 10km race. I ran and I won and I got the money, R500, which was a lot. And then there was another race in the afternoon and he said you want to go and I said I want to. So I went to Pinelands. It was a 5km race. I ran, I won and I got to pay for shoes.”
These two races got Tshabalala noticed by clubs and she was soon earning her provincial colours by running for the then Western Province. She took up ultra-marathons and won bronze at the South African Championships, and in 1994 she realised an important dream when she took part in the London Marathon — and came an astonishing 25th. All while working a day job as a cleaner for retailers such as Pick n Pay and Spar.
In 1999 Tshabalala tested positive for HIV. She has become a beacon of hope for others with the virus, helping to remove the stigma surrounding it and proving that one can live a positive life through taking one’s medication, staying fit and eating healthy food. She says she is available by phone 24 hours a day to give advice and support to people with HIV and, through her sterling example, she has helped many to get up and carry on with their lives in a positive way.
Tshabalala has also scaled three of the world’s highest mountains: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia and Aconcagua in Argentina. After Kilimanjaro, she got to meet her ultimate hero: Nelson Mandela.
Currently residing in Joe Slovo township, Langa Cape Town, she spends her free time coaching and running with the children of her community in an effort to keep them off the streets and away from drugs and other perils.
Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at www.21icons.com, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here.
21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.