Thando Hopa is a model, a lawyer, an aspiring poet and she is an albino who has created an outstanding record in the modelling industry. Thando Hopa never allowed her albinism to stop her from achieving greater heights in what she has set out to do.
“I have been dubbed a cover girl for people with albinism, but I never saw myself as that,” says the 26-year-old diva, who refuses to be seen only in terms of her lack of the colouring pigment.
“There are so many facets to a person,” she explains, thereby rejecting the term “albino” as a setback. She tries to change the idea of albinism from being a condition that is seen by superstitious people as fatal in Africa and can lead to discrimination and even sudden death.
Thando Hopa was not interested in modelling as a career when she met designer Gert-Johan Coetzee at a Johannesburg shopping mall in 2012. She recalls the day she met the designer that changed her story.
“Dressed in black, Coetzee passed me, ran back and asked if I would be interested in a photo shoot,” she recalls.
Hopa had received similar proposals before and rejected them to focus on her legal career as a lawyer. But she never received such invitation from a designer as prominent as Coetzee. Her sister encouraged her that modelling would allow her to overcome all the negative ideas about albinism.
Those negative perception about albinism include the false beliefs that people with the condition have been cursed by their ancestors, and that they are infertile or foolish to the point of being an imbecile, according to the Albinism Society of South Africa.
“Modelling brought me into contact with creative people, made me see the world as bigger, made me dream more and opened me up to being more creative,” says Thando Hopa, who reads out her poems to people at open-microphone sessions.
Thando Hopa was given two weeks to learn to catwalk on high heels, and when she stepped on the runway at South African Fashion Week, she was afraid she might just fall.
“There were steps, and since I struggle to measure depth because of my eyesight problems, I was afraid I would fall,” says the model, whose modelling career took off as she did publicity shoots and appeared on Forbes in 2013.
People with albinism are vulnerable to sunburn and other skin diseases plus visual problems.
The condition is usually caused by recessive genes and often leads to discrimination. Thandoo Hopa recalls people calling her names like “white monkey” when she was growing up in the city of Johannesburg.
But she got tremendous support from her filmmaker mother and engineer father, and when she went on to study law, she also received help from the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
“Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University understood my challenges and assisted me with my eyesight problems by supplying me with larger papers with bigger letters,” she says.
However, she still sees modelling as coming second to her job as a prosecutor at a Johannesburg court.
“I deal with a lot of rape cases, with children with trauma,” says Hopa, who wants to empower people with albinism, and also victims of crime and social injustice.
“Some of my poems deal with the socio-economic circumstances of African youth,” she says, adding that she tries to make her readers “appreciate young black men” to counter media reports branding them as criminals.
While some people see albinism as a bad condition that renders ones life fruitless, others see it as a supernatural event in any black family and also something that brings luck “One taxi driver, for instance, told me that having met me would help him earn a lot of money that day,” Hopa recalls.
Such beliefs can sometimes lead to some terrible consequences for the albino, as evil people may mutilate or even kill people with albinism to use their body parts for rituals aimed at acquiring power or riches.
Between 1998 and 2015, 164 people with albinism were killed and some 264 others attacked in 25 African countries ranging from Tanzania to Burundi, according to Under the Same Sun.