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South Africa

new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

E N D[image, unknown] P I E C E

Enemy of the people
The AIDS epidemic in South Africa is reaching frightening proportions – and the struggle against it,
says Suzanne LeClerc-Madlala, is being fatally undermined by the ‘gendering’ of blame.

In the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa it is estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent of the population is infected with the HIV virus. In the next five to ten years the levels of morbidity and mortality due to aids are set to overtake all other causes of illness and death combined. Most provincial hospitals are already full to overflowing with AIDS patients and are turning many of them away to face communities that are unprepared to accept them in their midst – especially if they are women.

Women have long been blamed for all manner of misfortunes that befall African communities. Many of the strongly patrilineal societies of Southern Africa – including the Zulu – still associate women with witchcraft. In KwaZulu-Natal, witch-hunting is not so readily acknowledged, nor is it a cause for political concern. Here, politically inspired terror is what holds the province in the grip of fear. Nevertheless, a recent wave of attacks on women living with hiv/aids bears all the hallmarks of modern-day witch-hunting.

The killing of Gugu Dlamini in one of Durban’s largest African townships just before Christmas last year sent shock-waves through the country. Even President Mandela added his voice to the general condemnation of a brutal and criminal act. Gugu’s mistake was to take seriously the call by campaigners and politicians for people living with hiv/aids to come forward. Shortly after speaking about her condition at a township meeting, Gugu was assaulted and left for dead outside her home. She died in hospital soon afterwards. Death threats to her fellow aids educators soon followed. Telephone threats and visits to the homes of these women by strange, heavily armed men asking for their whereabouts caused many women in the province who had ‘come out’ to go into hiding.

Along with accusations that they ‘disgraced’ their community by disclosing their hiv status, allegations were made that some of these women had been deliberately spreading the disease. In the case of one 19-year-old hiv-positive campaigner, the primary accuser was an ex-boyfriend. The National Youth Commission had to be called in to investigate and show their support by advising people to ignore such ‘smear campaigns’.

The distinct impression one gets from reading media reports is that only women carry the virus. What about the men? Certainly some have ‘come out’ and some have been railed against. But the communities’ response to them has been nothing in comparison with the level of intimidation and brutality that women experience. Rather, the general feeling towards men is one of pity, compassion and sympathy. They are regarded as the victims of a disease transmitted by women.

The consequences of this ‘gendering’ of the epidemic are just beginning to be felt. In an official press statement Pat Hlongwane, spokesperson for the National Association of People Living With hiv/aids, said that the time was coming close ‘when communities will start necklacing people’. As in the ‘total onslaught’ era of apartheid in the 1980s, police are uninterested in preventing the attacks. Their response has been to advise the threatened women to ‘wait until something happens’. For Gugu Dlamini, waiting until something happened brought her death.

South Africa prides itself on progressive gender legislation, with an official Commission on Gender, various Gender Desks in different government ministries, recent labour legislation granting maternity benefits, breastfeeding rights and laws to guard against workplace and domestic abuse. With the seventh-largest number of women parliamentarians in the world, the Government is proud of its pro-women achievements. But official lip-service has yet to be matched by on-the-ground change in the lot of South Africa’s poor, black women.

Modern-day witch-hunting of women with hiv/aids is a glaring reminder of gender inequality that is deeply entrenched and sanctioned by tradition in many of South Africa’s communities. Considering that the country as a whole is set to experience a wave of aids-related deaths that could cripple the economy and severely test health and social services that are already in a state of collapse, terrorizing and attacking hiv-positive women may just be the start of a new trend in the gross abuse of women’s rights.

In the words of one young woman living with hiv: ‘There is nothing we can do except pray to God. Our men will always blame us, no matter what. I just keep quiet.’ Keeping quiet is surely one of the most lethal responses of all.

Now hear this! Women AIDS educators get a hostile response from men.

Suzanne LeClerc-Madlala teaches in the Department of Anthropology, University of Durban-Westville.

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New Internationalist issue 313 magazine cover This article is from the June 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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