South African prosecutor Thando Hopa, 23, was the face of
designer Gert-Johan Coetzee's recent SA fashion week show.
Photograph: Hannes Danzfuss
As a child with albinism, Thando Hopa was called names by her
peers and regarded with superstition by the elderly. "Some saw
me as good luck," she says, "and some saw me as bad luck."
Recently all eyes were on Hopa again. This time she was striding
confidently down the catwalk and earning newspaper accolades as
"the new face of fashion"
The 23 year old is among a growing number of models with
albinism challenging prejudice on a continent where the
inherited condition – lack of pigment that affects the eyes,
hair and skin – can lead to discrimination and even death.
Hopa grew up south of Johannesburg with constant reminders to
wear hats and sunscreen to protect her sensitive skin. She
credits a strong and protective family for keeping her
self-esteem intact. A full-time legal prosecutor, she had no
thoughts of modelling until a chance meeting with fashion
designer Gert-Johan Coetzee at a shopping mall.
"After two minutes he said, 'Hi miss, are you interested in
modelling?' I was open to it. SA
fashion week was an overwhelming experience, a different
world altogether with so much creativity."
One in 4,000 people in South
Africa has albinism. They suffer
prejudicefrom employers and lack of recognition by
government, say activists. Last year the kidnapping of a
14-year-old boy with albinism was blamed on traditional beliefs.
There are hopes that positive portrayals of albinism can make a
difference. "I really hope so," Hopa said. "I received some very
positive feedback from young girls with albinism. If you don't
see positive examples, you wallow in self-pity. I just hope it
turns into another shade of normal."
Coetzee said he was bowled over when he first ran into Hopa. "It
was amazing, like somebody was shining a light at the side of my
head," he said. "She was beautiful, with the perfect body and
the perfect bone structure. She was glowing like an angel.
"I've always wanted to do a show with someone with albinism and
never found the right girl. When I saw her everything I was
working on came together. Her skin is as white as milk, stripped
of colour. There are endless possibilities."
Coetzee added: "She was excited that she can be role model for
girls with albinism. It's something to embrace rather than
something to hide."
Hopa follows Refilwe Modiselle, a model with albinism from
Soweto who has been modelling since age 13 and now the face of
South African fashion chain Legit. "I'm a black girl who lives
in the skin of a white person and that alone should embody what
a human being as a whole should represent," she
told the BBC recently.
But in east Africa particularly, people with albinism are
believed by some to have mystical and healing power, putting
them at risk of abduction and mutilation. Body parts are used in
witchcraft or buried under businesses to bring wealth.
Under the Same
Sun, an advocacy and education group, estimated that 71
people with albinism were killed in Tanzania between
2006 and 2012, while 31 survived machete attacks. In June this
year the body of a man was discovered with several of his body
Richard Mgamba, a Tanzanian
journalist who has investigated the trade in body parts,
said the example of Hopa shows "there are two different worlds
for people with albinism: one where they are being hunted and
killed, the other where they are being given opportunities to
live like everyone else".
He added: "In my country they are not given these opportunities.
They are feared and treated as second class citizens. In South
Africa we see a different story – a model with albinism – and
for me that's very encouraging."