We The Brave: Paradise Road

PARADISE ROAD: A Story of Hope

Riaan Norval’s Brave Story

Music was my first love. It’s something I was born to gravitate to. My mother always told me I could sing Sonja Herold’s “Jantjie” before I could speak. I’m grateful for my relationship with music for I had a hand-foot-eye coordination problem as a child. Any form of sport (that involved throwing or catching any object) was not destined to work out in peer, social acceptance. This (unfortunately) spilled into my adult life. ‘Step-ball-change’ musical theatre auditions were a nightmare and any form of aerobics I avoided at all cost.

I love harmonies. I love lyrics. I love the significance of songs and their histories. I love why singers write certain songs. If the writing is good the music becomes something to be shared, to relate to, to learn from. We are so busy with life’s challenges, how it all makes sense, where we fit in in the greater scheme of things or where we are (supposed to be) going that sometimes, we forget where we come from.  Music has the power to transport you to a time and place in an instant like opening up a photo album.

I remember one of my mother’s favorite songs from my childhood and it was one of mine too. The song was Paradise Road. As a young boy the words resonated deeply with me. I was not like other boys. I didn’t fit the mold. I was different and I so desperately wanted to fit in to be what the world expected for an Afrikaans boy with a religious upbringing. The song filled my heart with hope that one day I might find that place that they sang about. That elusive ‘paradise’ place where I felt I belonged and where I might have purpose. It was only much, much later that I would discover the full meaning and gravity of this gem in South Africa’s music history. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I was four years old when Felicia Marion, Thoka Ndlozi and Anneline Malebo joined forces and the group JOY was formed. The song, as I mentioned, was Paradise Road. SABC was still in Commissioner Street in the Johannesburg CBD. I read that co-writer and co-producer of the song, Patric van Blerk, had to use the ‘bantu entrance’ and not the main entrance, when he took the record to the SABC.

The song was rejected for the first few months. Radio of then didn’t know what to do with the song – three black ladies, huge orchestra, french horns, and harps? David Gresham believed in the song. He single-handedly played the song on his program continuously. In 1980, Paradise Road became a hit and spent nine weeks at number one on the charts.

JOY became the first black, South African group to reach number one on Springbok Radio’s hit parade. I remember hearing it on the radio everywhere you’d go. They were the first black group to win two SARIE Awards for Best Vocal Group and Best English LP of the Year. My parents had their own Springbok Radio record with that song on it. I played it over and over. Little did I know it became an unofficial anthem for the apartheid struggle.

1983 was a significant year. A year of change. We moved from a little dorp to the big city. I remember seeing the high buildings of Johannesburg for the first time. I was in awe. It was also the year that JOY split up.

Anneline Malebo never reached the same success as she did in 1980.

New year’s eve in 1998 I was at a house party dancing to house music with drama school friends (like most students at the time did).  In another part of Johannesburg, Anneline Malebo, also goes to a party where a man trapped her in a toilet cubicle and raped her at knife point.

Three years later her weight dropped from 60kg to just 38kg. She had no idea her rapist had infected her with HIV. The rumors were flying around that she was HIV positive. In those days there was virtually nobody in South Africa who had the courage to stand up to say “I am HIV positive”. Aids and HIV were rampant and especially in the townships, a face was needed to put to HIV and Aids.

Anneline went public with her status and did an interview for DRUM Magazine. ‘’Yes, I have Aids. I am a rape victim. I cannot hide it. This is me”, she told reporters. “People with the disease need help and love. I hope that my speaking out will help others.”

Anneline, recovered briefly from Aids-induced dementia after she began taking AZT. She believed her fame would boost the debate about the virus and the lack of access to ARVs for the poor. But the reverse happened: all but forgotten about by her friends and shunned by her community, she wasted away.

In June 2002, a benefit concert was held in Green Point to raise money for her. Once more she was to sing Paradise Road at the end of the concert. Sadly she could not stay the distance that evening. The band was standing ready to play Paradise Road – because she wanted to sing – but come interval, she was feeling too weak and had to go home

The R7000 that was raised for her, she chose not to spend it on expensive medicine, which she felt might not have helped her any more at that stage. She had only started using AZT about three weeks before that and wanted the money to go to her children.

The disease ravaged her body and mind. Dementia took over and she forgot that once she had been a pop star. She died at the age of 48.

Paradise Road became the unofficial anthem for people living with HIV and Aids.

Fast forward to a different time and place. The year is 2009…

“Please come see me on Monday. It’s important”, she said. There was something in her voice that unsettled me.  This echoed in my head the whole weekend. By Sunday night, I was so freaked out I needed a drink. Lots of them.  Come Monday morning I was still drunk from the night before and there was no way that I could go to work. I was working at a casting agency at the time. I called my boss, Gaelene, and I confided in her and admitted that there was no way that I could work in that state. She said “Darling, don’t worry about work. Do what you have to do. Just be positive”. And we laughed and we cried and we laughed…. and I was.

I had to disclose to each one of my friends and family. So scared that they would think less of me. Afraid to disappoint them. That I would be rejected as I had ‘politely’ rejected the two men who disclosed their status to me in the past.

I remember the way the doctor dropped the bomb and she was hard about it.  She said, “This is serious, you have a CD4 of 250 and you are going to have to make a lot of lifestyle changes”. I didn’t know what this meant. I felt ashamed. I felt judged.  I stopped her mid-sentence of saying something and said I have to go and walked out.  My friend Onida was waiting for me in the doctor’s waiting room. I walked out and our eyes met. I said nothing. She didn’t ask. She saw it on my face. The only thing I asked her was to drop me at home because I wanted to be alone. She respected it. And I cried and I cried. How could this happen to me? I was (supposedly) informed. In my early years as an actor I travelled to schools throughout South Africa to teach kids about HIV. I wanted to make a difference. I was always safe…. I worked in gay bars as a student. I partied on the scene. I was streetwise. I knew the drill. I realised my arrogance and ignorance.  And I cried. I will never forget how my dachshund, Disco, jumped on my lap that day and gently licked the tears off my face.  And I cried. And she licked. It was the first dog I ever owned and she was there. Her ‘maternal’ love and being there for me would become very significant for me later.

I had to disclose to each one of my friends and family. So scared that they would think less of me. Afraid to disappoint them. That I would be rejected as I had ‘politely’ rejected the two men who disclosed their status to me in the past. I relived those memories and I felt their shame because the tables had turned. I became the thing I was most afraid of and I hated myself. But… my family and friends didn’t hate me. They didn’t have the words to console me but they didn’t reject me, and they loved me.

I remember a day when it was raining heavily and having to take cover inside a friend’s house. I remember her running with a jersey over my head as we bolted inside laughing. Both petrified that I would catch a cold (or pneumonia or something) and die.

I needed my friends and family to ask me how I was doing.  They didn’t have the vocabulary to ask and wanted to show me that to them I was still the same me. An act of love. But I wasn’t and I didn’t know how to deal with it either so I started joking about it to show them that I was okay. I called ‘it’ my arranged wedding – the unwanted partner that I was stuck with.  They admired my strength and for how I coped. But I was not okay. Something had to change.

I realised that I had to take responsibility for my new ‘unwanted spouse’.  I was scared that a life of freelancing as an actor was not going to support the both us seeing that my ‘partner’ wasn’t the ‘working type’… I was lucky; six years ago I got a job at Health4Men. I was looking for stability, to educate myself about my status and if I’m honest to find some sort of redemption. I started going to a support group and met wonderful people along the way, but I was gradually disappearing from life.  I may have been ‘silently’ vocal  (from behind the scenes) through the work I was doing but I became a recluse. That is what stigma does. It’s a silent, unforgiving voice in your head you buy into. It’s what society perpetuates. It’s the heavy feeling of having to hide.  It’s coming out of the closet over and over again. And putting your self-worth in somebody else’s hands with the hope they will not reject you.

A couple of weeks ago my doctor called me at home “Congratulations you are still undetectable and your CD4 is 1200. You are the poster boy for adherence” he said. I beamed with pride and joy for I have been undetectable for 5 years now.  I still drink (maybe more than I should) and only stopped smoking four weeks ago (after 21 years).  I am proud to say that I am adherent and you know what? ARVs work! I am in a relationship with a negative partner and he has embraced my ‘arranged marriage’ and the three of us are in a closed ‘polygamous relationship’ for over a year now.

I have had it easy in comparison to a lot of people who live with HIV. Respect to the people who have fought. Respect to the ones who have fallen. Respect to the long-term HIV survivors that didn’t have access to free, triple combination ARVs like many others do today. Respect to the people who diligently go to the clinics to collect their ARVs. Respect to the men who struggle in silence and don’t have a voice due to stigma. Respect to the open-minded.  Respect to the men on PrEP.  Respect to every person who has been on the receiving end of ignorance and prejudice.

If you have not been following the scientific breakthroughs of the last couple of years, get informed, get tested and join the cause and be part of the movement to fight stigma (it’s SO five years ago!). Whether you’re positive or negative you can help to end HIV/Aids by 2030.

To my parents, friends, family, the guys from Positively Alive, my colleagues at the Anova Health Institute and Health4Men and of course to my girl Disco; thank you for the music, thank you to every person along my way for your love and support. Thank you to the ‘Anneline Malebos’ that came before me. Without you, I could not be brave today.

Song Title: Paradise Road
Artist: JOY

Come with me down paradise road
This way please, I’ll carry your load
This you won’t believe.
Come with me to paradise skies
Look outside and open your eyes
This you must believe.

There are better days before us
And a burning bridge behind, fire smokin’, the sky is blazing,
There’s a woman waiting weeping
And a young man nearly beaten all for love.
Paradise was almost closin’ down.

Come with me to paradise days
It’ll change your life, it’ll sure change your ways
This you won’t believe.
Take my hand down paradise lane
Away from heart ache without any pain
I know ‘cause I have been.

There are better days before us
And a burning bridge behind, fire smokin’, the sky is blazing,
There’s a woman waiting weeping
And a young man nearly beaten all for love.
Paradise was almost closin’ down.

You must believe – you must believe this
You must believe – you must believe this
You must believe – you must believe this…
There are better days…