Mercy Makhalemele is a South African AIDS activist and motivational speaker best known for co-hosting (with Sipho "Paddy" Nhlapo) the first two seasons of the HIV magazine series Siyayinqoba Beat It!, from 1999-2000.
Born and raised in Soweto, Mercy (popularly known as Masi, also known to some as Mercy Cowper) was no stranger to hardships. In 1993, pregnant with her second child, Mercy was diagnosed as HIV positive.
This diagnosis led to a series of events, including the death of her husband and daughter, and losing almost everything she had, that helped shape her future.
Having been dismissed from her managerial position in that same year due to her HIV status, Mercy began working as a domestic worker to support her children, whilst going about assisting those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS on how to live positively in spite of their status.
Her work has seen her rise from her struggles as an HIV positive domestic worker to a speaker and activist on various topics related to HIV/AIDS.
She has spoken out at the highest levels for the rights of those living with HIV/AIDS and on the need for action on new policies and laws, often challenging governing bodies on their stance.
Between 1999 and 2000 Mercy co-presented the television series Beat It!, which was aimed at equipping HIV positive people with coping mechanisms and encouraging them to live healthily. She also wrote a column in Bona magazine.
In 2000 she worked with TAC's Zackie Achmat to promote a campaign to test and treat pregnant women. During these years, Mercy and her colleagues challenged government ministers at various conferences and took them to court over their failure to provide AZT.
In 2000, United Nation Secretary General Kofi Annan gave her a special invitation and recognition during the UN General Assembly on HIV/AIDS 2000, for her stand in breaking the silence and boundaries to fight for the rights of individuals infected and affected around the world.
In 2004, Mercy received the prestigious Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award (sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation) for her courage, dedication and hard work that she had put into breaking the stigma of HIV/AIDS, advancing the rights affected persons to treatment, care and support, as well as enriching their lives.
She was one of the founder members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) along with Judge Erwin Cameron, Zackie Achmat and others. She was also a founding member of the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA), as well as the National Convention of HIV/AIDS in South Africa (NACOSA), and served on the National Advisory Board of the HIV Youth Campaign, LoveLife.
She has played a leading role in all national efforts to mobilize appropriate levels of care and support for families affected by HIV/AIDS, and efforts to secure universal access to AIDS treatment.
Mercy has also been awarded an Honorary Master's Degree from the Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, and has gained international acclaim for her work that spans across the globe.
Later in 2004, Mercy took up residence to the United Kingdom, where she continued and broadened her cause. She was appointed Vice Chairperson of the African HIV Policy Network (AHPN), a board member for the UK Coalition of People living with HIV/AIDS and volunteers for a number of charities such as Christian Aid and South African Voices Against AIDS.
She visited Oxford on behalf of the Bishop Simeon Trust and has lent her support to local initiatives in England focused on AIDS awareness.
She returned to South Africa in 2007 and, together with co-Director Rindai Gombe, founded the Mercy AIDS Foundation, as well as Tsa-Botsogo Consultancy (Re-Awakening) and Proudly Red Beauty, Health and Wellness Salon.
Mercy is currently involved in a number of initiatives to improve the lives, health and wellbeing of those infected with HIV/AIDS, as well as spearheading community development projects through Tsa-Botsogo and Mercy AIDS Foundation.
She is in demand as a speaker locally and across the world, has addressed many important government and corporate gatherings, and she has featured as a guest speaker at various conferences, seminars and presentations in South Africa, United States, United Kingdom and other countries.