The dating scene is often compared to a jungle: rough, tough and a little bewildering. But when you're HIV-positive and looking for love, the map's even harder to decipher, the journey fraught with esteem-threatening decisions and nagging uncertainty.
To mark Valentine's Day, IRIN/PlusNews had a "heart to heart" with three activists and a young starlet - all living with the virus - who shared their tips and experiences on love, life and everything else.
Johanna Ncala, 40, is a treatment literacy coordinator for AIDS lobby group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). She has a long-distance relationship with her partner of four years, a fellow activist from Mozambique, who is the father of her two-year-old daughter.
Luckyboy Mkhondwane, 32, TAC's community media practitioner, has been with his HIV-negative partner for just over a year.
Gordon Mthembu, 44, TAC's Gauteng provincial coordinator, has just paid lobola (bride price) for his girlfriend, who is negative. They have been together since May 2007.
Tender Mavundla, 26, is about to release her first solo album. She went public with her status during a singing competition on national television last year. She is engaged to a teacher, and is also in a discordant relationship.
- Dare to disclose?
Luckyboy: We met on November 25 ; it was love at first sight. So I spoke to some of his friends who I know, and it happened he was also attracted to me. So I said, 'Okay fine, you want to go out with me, but there's this thing you have to know about me - I'm HIV positive'. And he said, 'Okay it's fine, I won't have a problem with that'.
I've been with other people, who, once you tell them, they say, 'I'll call you'. And then you sit next to the phone and the person doesn't call. So it's better to know I'm getting into this with a person who's willing to stay with me for the long haul.
Tender: After going to movies and seeing this guy for a few weeks, I saw that he was serious about having a relationship ... So I told him, there's something I want to tell you: 'I've got TB and I'm being treated for it.' He's, like, 'ah, it's OK, everybody gets sick.'
It took days for me to say, 'It's not really just TB'. It was eating away at me ... There I am, seeing this guy; we're using condoms, but the condom might break anytime, and after I tell him he might even kill me, he might beat me up. So I said to him, 'Look, I'm HIV positive.'
I watched the guy walk away. Literally walk away. He just stood up, looked at me, and he's, like, 'You're not serious.' He looked at me like he'd seen a ghost, like he was terrified. So I told him, 'The condom hasn't broken, you're fine. In fact, you don't even know if you have it too, have you checked?' He's, like, 'I'll never check for that!' I tried calling him but he never picked up my calls ...
It made me feel like I'll never have a normal relationship ever again. After that [I thought], 'You know what? F**k telling these people. I'm now going to keep quiet and do my thing'. But that also didn't work for me - it was bad keeping that secret from someone you claim to be caring about, but it went on for quite a while; I'm not going to lie to you ...
Everything the doctors told me [about reinfection] was making me feel guilty so I went back to saying, 'You know what? Stuff it. I'm going to tell them the first day [I meet them].' And I took that rule and I applied it, and now I have a boyfriend and he wants to marry me.
Gordon: It was maybe after two days of being involved with my partner that I told her I'm HIV-positive.
Initially, she said 'I'm scared, let's just leave everything, I'm not prepared to get involved with someone who's HIV positive.' I respected that, but maybe after a month she came back again and said she made some enquiries about this whole thing.
We've been involved since last May and I've even paid lobola [bride price]. Her family knows about my status and it didn't matter, because she decided she loved me and she didn't have a problem with that. I'm accepted as I am and her family are beginning to be involved in terms of advocating for people who are HIV positive.
Johanna: There was one guy I met in Durban. He seemed a very educated person and he said he was interested in me. I told him I was in a relationship but he kept pestering me with calls. When I disclosed my status, he said, 'It's fine, let's try.'
Immediately after I dropped that phone, I knew he wouldn't call me again. He never did. Usually when I meet someone, once I disclose I just remove their number from my phone because I don't want to get tempted and start calling this person. You just know when they're not going to call. You can hear from his speech that it doesn't come from his heart, he's just saying it not to hurt you.
If you tell him you're positive and he just says, 'It's fine', I know he's lying, because a person should say, 'I'm concerned, can you give me more information?' There have to be questions.
- Dishing on discordancy
Gordon: On a daily basis, that torments - what if one day the condom bursts? The scary part is infecting my partner. Sometimes I even use two condoms trying to protect her.
Luckyboy: That is a very scary thing. This has happened to me, and my partner is negative. He went for a test the next day and then again after three months. He was still negative, but that's why I prefer to be straightforward from the onset.
My partner knows the chances of him contracting the virus are very slim because my viral load is very low, but that doesn't give me the right to have unsafe sex. I wouldn't take the risk. I don't think I would be able to live with the guilt if I infected someone.
- You, me and my HIV
Gordon: Maybe [you're talking] and they don't believe you - they'll just say, 'Your AIDS is playing tricks with you'. It becomes an issue, because whatever you say, it's related to HIV; whatever you do, it's all about HIV.
My partner doesn't drink or smoke and it's a hell of a problem because I drink, I smoke. In most cases I have to hide myself because I'll be reminded all the time: 'You smoke, but you know you're positive'.
In December I had quite a lot of drinks, I came back home at about one o'clock [in the morning]. My partner, instead of asking me, where was I, the first thing she said was, 'Were you entertaining your AIDS again?' I became so emotional it nearly led me to call it off because it means she has issues she won't directly state.
Luckyboy: There's concern, and then there's concern. Whenever I go shopping and I buy a bottle of red wine my partner says, 'You're HIV positive, you're not supposed to drink'. Or like now, if I was out with my partner I wouldn't be eating this [pointing to his sandwich], I'd be eating salad and drinking water. So, sometimes, it's too much.
- Breaking up is hard to do
Johanna: It hurts sometimes that you're going to start something and then it ends, and so it makes you more reserved and you don't want to get involved in a relationship. And so once one embraces you, you really stick to that relationship. But it's not easy, because you're so scared
Tender: As far as I'm concerned, staying single is not a bad thing. Don't look for a boyfriend. Look for friends first. A friend who can understand who you are, as Tender, and Tender with HIV/AIDS. Those very friends can turn out to be people who fall in love with you for your bravery. Just because you're HIV positive doesn't mean you must be desperate. Don't go out sniffing at men saying, 'Please have me, have me, have me.'