Lawyer-Model Thando Hopa Changing Perceptions About Albinism In Africa

Written by Dana Sanchez

South African model and lawyer Thando Hopa grew up in the shade, her porcelain skin protected by sunscreen and long sleeves, DailyNation reports.

She was born with albinism, an inherited lack of pigmentation of skin from head to toe that’s considered good luck or bad luck among superstitious Africans. In some parts of Africa, albinos face discrimination and even death.

Now 25, Hopa is successful and confident, but it wasn’t always that way.

Thando Hopa,
Thando Hopa,

Her father is Xhosa. Her mother is Sotho. She identifies as black, but is mistaken for white. People ask her if she was adopted, she said in a report in un’ruly.

As a self-conscious 12-year-old becoming aware of boys, she remembers running to her father in tears, she told DailyNation.

“‘Why am I not like other children?'” she asked her father. “Everybody makes fun of me and I have to wear these stupid hats, and I always have to put on sun cream.’ And I was crying and crying.

“My father is a wonderful man, but he doesn’t really know how to deal very well with emotions. So he looked at me, and said, ‘My child, let me be honest with you: when you were born, I was also shocked!'”

From a young age, Hopa was very vocal about albinism and never shied away from the topic, she told un’ruly.

Thando Hopa,
Thando Hopa,

In South Africa, having albinism often means living with superstitions and stigmas that isolate a child. “I was teased, called names, people didn’t want to touch me,” Hopa said. “And as a child, you don’t quite know how to articulate what is going on in your head or how to reason it out in a mature way. So you begin resenting the way you look.” Luckily, her parents were relentless in their efforts to instill confidence in her.

Hopa is now a lawyer and part-time model in Johannesburg, working near the offices where Nelson Mandela was an attorney in the 1950s, according to DailyNation.

Although she had been approached to do modelling, she couldn’t see the benefits at first. I thought, “It’s such a shallow profession — why would I want to do that? I am a lawyer,'” she told DailyNation.

Then she met designer Gert-Johan Coetzee in Johannesburg in 2012, and changed her mind.

“Gert came to me and asked me if I would like to do a shoot and I said I would consider it,” Hopa said. “And then I spoke to my sister. And my sister said to me, ‘Don’t look at modelling as modelling. Look at it as an opportunity for you to actually change the perception of albinism. Remember how you grew up. Remember how people really treated you.'”

South African lawyer and part-time fashion model Thando Hopa in a dress by fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee, June 13, 2015. Photo: Gianluigi Guerica/Getty
South African lawyer and part-time fashion model Thando Hopa in a dress by fashion designer Gert-Johan Coetzee, June 13, 2015. Photo: Gianluigi Guerica/Getty

One of four children, Hopa has another sibling also born with albinism. The daughter of a filmmaker mother and an engineer father, she was always told by her parents that she was “the most beautiful little girl,” she told DailyNation.

Reports of albinos being murdered and their organs trafficked are not uncommon in some parts of Africa, but extremely rare in South Africa, Hopa said. It’s a different story in rural areas of Tanzania, where education about the genetic condition is low.

The albino population is extremely high in Tanzania compared to the global population, and albinos there are increasingly the victims of brutal attacks. In Western countries, the incidence of albinism is one in 20,000 people. In East African countries such as Tanzania, it’s closer to one in 1,400 people, AFKInsider reported.

Attacks against albinos have spiked this year in East Africa, especially in Malawi and Tanzania, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said in May, WashingtonPost reports.

“As a result, many people with albinism are living in abject fear,” he said in a statement cited by the Associated Press. “Some no longer dare to go outside, and children with albinism have stopped attending school.”

Hopa says she encountered prejudice and misunderstanding from the last people you’d expect.

Some strangers would hug her for good luck, others spat at her to fight her bad luck. Teachers misinterpreted her her poor eyesight — common among albinos — as a sign of her being mentally challenged. Hopa uses a magnifying glass to read, and is not allowed to drive.

She also dislikes stilettos, so her first trip down a catwalk was something of a miracle.

Thando Hopa and fashion designer Gert Johan Coetzee at SA Style Awards 2013. Photo:
Thando Hopa and fashion designer Gert Johan Coetzee at SA Style Awards 2013. Photo:

Hopa entered the fashion world without the usual attributes of a catwalk model.

She looked ghostly without makeup except for vivid fuchsia on her lips when she exploded on the cover of the first Forbes Life Africa back in 2013, DailyNation reports.

“It’s one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve had taken,” said Hopa.

Hopa says it took years for her to feel comfortable going without makeup, her eyebrows so pale they looked almost invisible.

“I was much younger then. I could never go out without make-up… But as time goes on, your confidence just grows,” she told DailyNation.

“The dress was gorgeous — black and green. I can tell you, I have never felt so expensive in my life. But I was actually so scared because in essence that was the first time I really walked in heels. I was even saying a little prayer when I was walking, ‘God, please don’t let me fall on this catwalk!’ I was absolutely frightened.”

Thando Hopa.Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty
Thando Hopa.Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty