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Author, restaurateur, humanitarian, mother... superwoman

Aug 15 2016 07:30
Lameez Omarjee

Johannesburg – Marina Appelbaum grew up with a strong work ethic instilled by her mother. From serving in the family restaurant, Appelbaum went on to own her own coffee shop in the 90s. But this businesswoman is mostly known for her work on education of HIV/AIDS prevention.

Fin24 caught up with Appelbaum, after her husband Robert, a partner at Webber Wentzel, made us aware of her accomplishments. The mother of three is a “superb chef and home maker”, who co-owns two Rocomamas restaurants. She also lectures on HIV/AIDS at the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) and she sits on the board for the Orange Babies HIV charity organisation, among other things.

But one of the Appelbaum’s most notable achievements is her book titled HIV/AIDS. First published by Jacana Media in 2009, there are now over 400 000 copies sold, and it has been translated in seven languages, with distribution growing across the African continent.

“When you meet people and are very open and accepting, non-judgemental, that is the point where you can make the greatest amount of change,” said Appelbaum. Being non-judgemental is one of the greatest skills and assets to have in the world we live in, especially when working with people living with HIV, she explained.  

Appelbaum learnt to adopt this non-judgemental mentality while working at her mother’s Greek restaurant, Three Sisters, in Hillbrow in the 70s. “Hillbrow at the time was a real melting pot, with the most incredible people frequenting the restaurant,” she said. This included drug dealers and political activists alike.

Died quickly

At the same time, she felt a “pull” towards working with street children, which she did throughout completing her studies in psychology at Wits University. After graduating, she travelled and lived in Athens and Europe. Upon returning to South Africa she opened the Café Three Sisters in Rosebank. “It was the first coffee shop in the whole of Rosebank,” she recalled.

While raising her three children, Appelbaum started working at the Ethembeni Children’s Home, in Doornfontein. The orphanage is part of the Salvation Army. This is where her work in HIV/AIDS began.

“Honestly, it was my first experience of seeing young babies who were born with HIV and who died. They died very quickly,” she said. Under President Thabo Mbeki’s era, Antiretro Virals (ARVs) were not available for babies, she explained. “At the time people did not believe in ARVs, it was a struggle.”

At Ethembeni, Appelbaum established a stimulation and enrichment programme for the babies and she also trained the staff. In 2005, Appelbaum and her friend Bev tendered for the Standard Bank Peer Educator Wellness Programme, to offer a two-day life skills course. At first, she was apprehensive to apply. “I laughed. I said Bev, we are white, we are affluent, we live in the northern suburbs. We are never going to get it.”

But Appelbaum went onto develop the programme, which won the tender.

They spent the next four years rolling out the programme and Standard Bank received two awards for the work. These being the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS 2008 Workplace Awards for Business Excellence and AfriComNet 2008 Award for Excellence in HIV and AIDS Communication in Africa.

Penning a book

Although they had success in training people, Appelbaum realised there was a need to leave something material for the communities to use as a resource. “I never thought I would write any type of book, but suddenly there was a type of light-bulb moment,” she said.

She researched existing HIV/AIDS books. Most books were very academic, and all “doom and gloom”, she said. Further, the extent of material that was available was limited. One journal at a bookstore was about two-years old.

“I needed [the book] to be non-judgemental. Reach across parameters of different ages. I didn’t want it to be doom and gloom. I want the person to pick up my book and enjoy reading it and I wanted  Constitutional rights in it,” she said. Subsequently at a meeting at the Sowetan to deliver training, Appelbaum stumbled across the work of cartoonist Sifiso Yalo. She commissioned Yalo to work with her on the book.

They infused humor into the book, making it generic and not “top heavy”. “When people pick up my book, they read it and enjoy it,” she said. The book eventually won a Feathered Quill Award. “We sometimes go to print and have 60 000 copies made,” she added.

Audio: Marina Appelbaum shares on the importance of discussing HIV/AIDS openly as a step towards prevention

Appelbaum plans to write more books in future. She is currently working on one about Tuberculosis (TB), and plans to develop a guide on the small claims court. Education should change behaviour. It is not just about sharing knowledge, she explained.

Through the book, Appelbaum was invited to be part of the Orange Babies board, along with Audrey Mothupi, chairperson of the organisation and Prof. Glenda Gray who is head of the Medical Research Council. The board decided to raise funds for the charity. As an avid art collector herself, Appelbaum said the board took a creative approach.

In partnership with the Goodman Gallery, 12 of South Africa’s top artists offered a sample of their work each, to be put onto plates that were sold as a set worth R20 000. The project raised R2m in 15 months, said Appelbaum.

Appelbaum shows a sample of one of the plates by Brett Murray, titled 'No such thing as a free lunch'. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee)

Going back to her roots

Appelbaum’s family has always worked with food. She co-owns a YuMe, a sushi bar, with her sister and brother in law. They also opened the second Rocomamas, a burger joint, in Pineslopes. They own another Rocomamas in Kempton Park.

She has taught her children that you can have empathy and still be committed to what is happening around you. “You can be successful, you can be white, you can be affluent. But you can also be awake to what is going on around you,” she said.

* August is Women's Month and Fin24, in collaboration with the Sanlam Enterprise Supplier Development Programme, invites you to help us celebrate and showcase SA's extraordinary women in business.

women  |  hiv & aids
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