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Charlize Theron on How Her Nonprofit CTAOP Is Changing Lives in Africa

Charlize Theron on How Her Nonprofit CTAOP Is Changing Lives in Africa

When, in 2007, Charlize Theron launched her eponymous nonprofit — the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project — its mission was as targeted as it was ambitious: to bring HIV prevention and information to a continent where both were in tragically short supply. But in more recent years, CTAOP’s scope has widened considerably, as the organization has formed partnerships with other African NGOs to spread vaccine equity, increase educational opportunities and battle gender-based violence.

Theron, who was born in South Africa, hopped on a Zoom call with THR to talk about her organization’s successes and challenges — “You don’t become an agent of change overnight” — as well as its goals for the future. But she did not come alone. She also invited two colleagues into the conversation: Neo Mohajane, program director at HIVSA, an AIDS-focused nonprofit that often partners with CTAOP; and Miche Williams, 24-year-old alum of Brave Rock Girl, a CTAOP partner program that provides safe spaces for young women in Manenberg, one of the most dangerous townships in South Africa.

Charlize, why was it important for you to include Neo and Miche on this call?

CHARLIZE THERON Because it’s important to me [that we be] authentic storytellers. When we birthed CTAOP, there was messaging that needed to happen, but it’s old-school thinking that one person can bring that message and spread it. That’s something we wanted to change early on. So, when I get to meet these incredible women and get to know them through working with their programs, I rely on them to help tell the story. Today, we have the opportunity for them to tell their story and the truth of their narrative.

OK, so Neo, tell us your story. How has CTAOP impacted your work with AIDS activism in Africa?

NEO MOHAJANE I usually shy away from the word “empower” — people use it loosely to cover a multitude of sins — but I’m going to say it here. The relationship with CTAOP has been so empowering. It’s allowed us to do things that we only dreamed about, things that we wondered if we could do. They walked us through the journey of launching Choma. Charlize was there and said, “I see your vision and I believe in what you guys are trying to do.” We often joke at HIVSA that we think there must be something in the water that their whole team drinks because you get the exact same sentiment from everybody that works at CTAOP. You get the feeling of somebody who truly believes in your capabilities and truly believes that if you need a leg up, if you need a hand to help you walk the road, if you need a hug even, all of that is there.

Can you explain Choma a bit? I know it’s one of HIVSA’s big initiatives.

MOHAJANE Choma is an online magazine that provides health information to girls and young women. Young women may not necessarily actively look for health information unless they are in trouble. But they will look for information related to fashion and beauty, and if you package it with health information, then you’ve made it more accessible. They may look [in Choma] for information related to sex, love and relationships, but they’ll also find information related to HIV prevention, contraception, delaying sexual debut as well as inspiring young girls to have dreams and aspirations. Choma provides all that information on your phone — or any other platform, from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and a website.

Charlize, why did Choma strike you as a good idea?

THERON It was so innovative. You don’t necessarily need brick-and-mortar to change people’s lives. I got to visit when they launched, and it was so powerful and effective in reaching young people at their level. You can do all the great work you want, but unless somebody can actually hear it, it doesn’t mean anything. Young people are tough. I have two in my house. Unless you can come to their level, they just think you’re annoying them — especially when you’re talking about things like reproductive health. That’s the last thing they want to talk to their parents about. Reaching them at a very specific level, through sports or specific centers where girls really feel like they can relax and be a part of something that they’re interested in while also giving them this information [is what works].

Neo, what were HIVSA’s goals to start the year and what do you still hope to accomplish in 2024?

MOHAJANE One is community capacity strengthening. We embed that in all of the work that we do. We just got two grants, one in the Northwest Province and another in the Limpopo Province, to support community-based organizations in those areas by providing and sharing knowledge that we have around services that are impactful and that will ultimately support positive outcomes for young people. In terms of Choma, we want to branch out by including boys and young men in the conversation. When we talk about gender-based violence, we often look at the demographic of girls and young women because they are often at the receiving end. But we often forget that if we don’t bring along their male counterparts, there’s a potential to perpetuate the cycle. We want to make sure that this platform is accessible to both genders, but along with that, we recognize that gender is a multifaceted area. We want this to be a platform where anybody of any orientation can access information related to sexual reproductive health. We want to open it to the LGBTQIA+ community as well.

Neo Mohajane

Shen Scott/Courtesy of CTAOP and subject

Charlize, that again speaks to meeting young people where they are …

THERON Just like you’re asking questions and getting information, that really is our process [at CTAOP]. I haven’t lived in South Africa for over 30 years, and so even though I am a South African, for me to step in and think that I have this knowledge [would be naïve]. I know the statistics and I know what our program partners share with us. First of all, let’s start with this: South Africa is the most beautiful country you will ever go to. It is also a country that is still suffering from a lot of turmoil, and unfortunately people are suffering for a lot of sins that happened many, many years ago. It’s also the youngest continent; I think its over 60 percent are under 25. When people say that young people are the future, they are really talking about Africa. There’s so much to invest in. It’s pretty obvious why I’m interested in it — I’m from there. It’s where my bones are from. That’s never going to change no matter how long I live here.

How do you know what your role is?

THERON The word charity just really bothers me so much because truly what it should be called is solidarity. We are working in solidarity. We know what our role is at CTAOP, and I know the role that I play as someone who has a bit of a platform over here. As a unified head, we try to work in solidarity on long-term partnerships through grant-making and storytelling. On my part, I feel it’s not a responsibility, it’s just the right thing to do to stand up, whether that be through the United Nations or through CTAOP or through the press that I get that allows me the access to talk about these issues. There’s no other way to explain it. People ask, “Why South Africa?” The answer is that if you really, truly care about people and you care about the wellbeing of the world, you have to look at places like South Africa where femicide is five times higher than any other place. We should figure out what’s going on. I try my best. I have also failed miserably. I think failure is how CTAOP is constantly evolving.

How so?

THERON We started off just working in HIV, and we had to learn as we went along that there were more holistic approaches. It’s not just black-and-white. There’s a lot of gray in there. The more we leaned into our partnerships, the more we learned from their work and in sharing information with other partners. We held each other’s hands as we went down the road. It’s in the longevity that you start to realize where your power is and what you can do to actually cause change. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, it’s just that the goal here is ultimately to make things better.

Universal’s Donna Langley and Charlize Theron at CTAOP’s Night Out fundraiser in 2021.

Rich Fury/Getty Images for CTAOP

If you talk to any leader — from the philanthropy sector to movie studios — most tell you the same thing: In order to be successful, you have to be nimble and pivot. Where do you see CTAOP going?

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THERON The COVID pandemic was interesting for us because it became clear at the beginning that in many places outside of America and Europe that countries were being forgotten in terms of having access to healthcare. We kept hearing that over and over. We joined our program partners to try and figure out how we could be of help in providing access. Ultimately, we didn’t think that we could do it because we hadn’t been involved in that way. It all happened so fast, and COVID taught CTAOP that we could. We can pivot and it gave us the confidence and understanding that we have access to tools and resources that we could use.

Pivoting is life, it’s something you have to embrace in everything that you do. The older you get, the more you realize that there’s such power in that. Not this kind of anger that you wrap change around, but that there’s a real empowerment in stepping into a world where you have to challenge yourself. The challenges can be huge and they happen fast. For us in the future, it boils down to our fundamental philosophy which is allowing our program partners to guide us. We work very hard over here to try and get rich people to give me lots of money but we also like to continue to create safe spaces where we can have the authentic storytellers step in and share.

Miche Williams

Bulumko Gana/Courtesy of CTAOP and subject

Miche, you’re an alum of the Brave Rock Girl, first as a learner, then as a leader. And you just graduated with a film and television degree from the African Leadership Academy. How has CTAOP impacted your life? What’s your narrative?

MICHE WILLIAMS I was 16 when I joined Brave Rock Girl. I come from Manenberg, where there’s a lot of gang violence. Young people there don’t always have access to safe spaces, so joining the group was amazing. I found other girls to have conversations with, and we could talk about how we were going through similar situations at home. As I turned 18, I got the opportunity to go to the African Leadership Academy; I was fortunate to receive funding to go to that institution. With CTAOP, it was a different kind of funding. They were sending me to further my studies in the arts. Everyone wants to fund doctors or lawyers because that seems really important, which it is. But I was passionate about storytelling. CTAOP was like, “If you want to do this, we will support you.” They not only supported me in funding, but they offered to walk the journey with me. That really strengthened me as a storyteller and as a young person. I’m really grateful for that.

Now that you have a bachelor’s degree, what’s the plan?

WILLIAMS I really want to enter the film industry. I’ve been thinking about what I have to share with the world — what’s my purpose and my path. I feel that I have stories to tell, and I hope I’m able to one day direct my own films.

Charlize, what’s it like hearing that?

THERON It’s a little like a mother watching her children go off to school. You wonder if they will graduate and how they will do. Miche and I talked a lot over Zoom about all the struggles she faced, and the struggles a lot of our scholars faced, especially during COVID, being so far from home and all the sacrifices that were made in order for them to make their dreams come true. Miche is coming out to Los Angeles, and I’m really excited to talk to her about her plans to direct. But for me, the fact that I am sitting in this chair is something that shouldn’t have happened. It’s crazy that I’m here. I grew up in a tiny little farm community, and we didn’t have a film industry back then. But going through my own experience, I see the power in it. Now that I’ve lived it, I know what’s possible.

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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