"My CD4 count was two, so I had full-blown Aids at the time," she recalls, sitting in a sunny room at the Parkhurst home in Johannesburg, she shares with her adoptive mother. I thought I had been educated enough about it; it was never something that came up," says Sithole-Spong.
"As a young person, coming out about your HIV status to anyone is an emotional thing," says Phindile Sithole-Spong. She's been a youth ambassador to a United Nationals conference in Washington, DC. When she was 19, she discovered that she had been born with HIV after she fell ill and landed in hospital.
"The possibility of rejection is so real." Sithole-Spong has everything going for her. She loves a glass of good red wine and she can cook up a storm.
"It's a stressful journey and I feel like a lot of the time people undervalue how strong you have to be and how prepared you have to be because it's not something you take lightly," she says.
"It was quite traumatic for me; not only the fact that I was HIV positive but [also that] I had a really low CD4 count [a measure of the strength of the immune system. A normal CD4 count is between 4, according to online HIV information service Aidsmap].
"HIV is not just a physical manifestation but it's psychological as well and it does take a toll on you – whoever you are." Sithole-Spong says she took "time out" from dating to "deal with the emotional implications" of living with HIV before venturing into her next relationship.
She had decided early on that she would tell everybody she got involved with about her status.Fortunately, she had the "luxury of having doctors who spoke openly" to her about disclosing her status and supported her.When she was in her second year at the University of Cape Town, Sithole-Spong publicly disclosed her status at an event hosted by the institution."I dont think my love life has changed much at all; I guess because I'm so public with my status.People already know [I'm HIV positive] before they meet me," she says."The sooner someone knows, the better for both of you.