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Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa

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In some parts of South Africa, more than one in three people are HIV positive. Love in the Time of AIDS explores transformations in notions of gender and intimacy to try to understand the roots of this virulent epidemic. By living in an informal settlement and collecting love letters, cell phone text messages, oral histories, and archival materials, Mark Hunter details the everyday social inequalities that have resulted in untimely deaths. Hunter shows how first apartheid and then chronic unemployment have become entangled with ideas about femininity, masculinity, love, and sex and have created an economy of exchange that perpetuates the transmission of HIV/AIDS. This sobering ethnography challenges conventional understandings of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

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1 Gender and AIDS in an Unequal World

ePub

In 2006, Jacob Zuma, then sixty-four and South Africa’s former deputy president, was accused of rape. Zuma, who had entered anti-apartheid politics after growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, faced charges from a woman he had known for some time—her father was a fellow member of the African National Congress before his death. “Khwezi” (Star), as she was called by her supporters, was only half Zuma’s age and an HIV-positive AIDS activist.

The trial—in the words of one newspaper headline, “23 Days That Shook Our World”—appeared to crystallize fundamental gulfs in South Africa’s young democracy.1 Outside the court, and watched by the hungry media, some of Zuma’s supporters burnt photographs of Khwezi and yelled, “Burn the bitch!” Inside the courtroom, Zuma controversially drew on Zulu customs to claim that he could acquire sex relatively easily and was therefore no rapist: “Angisona isishimane mina,” he stated (I don’t struggle to attract women/I am not a sissy). He also argued that in Zulu culture a man who left a woman sexually aroused could himself be charged with rape. Zuma’s defense, in other words, was that he was no rapist, just a traditional patriarch with a large sexual appetite.2

 

2 Mandeni: “The AIDS Capital of KwaZulu-Natal”

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If you drive north from Durban up the N2 highway you might smell central Mandeni before you see it. You know you are getting close when you cross the Thukela River, which formerly divided the British colony of Natal from the independent Zulu Kingdom. Then, turning onto a northwest-bound road, you will pass the former white town of Mandini. Its name is actually a misspelling of “Mandeni,” an older word for the area and now the name of the local municipality.

Continue driving and you be assaulted by a nasty, sulphurous smell just as the fuming chimneys of a paper mill come into view. If you wish to take in some spectacular apartheid landscape, close your car windows and turn north from here. To your right you’ll be admiring the lush sugar-cane farms of the former white-designated land; but glance left and you’ll see the former KwaZulu homeland/bantustan—a sprawling African township and thousands of shacks. Then, at a place called Isithebe, you’ll see a giant industrial complex of more than 180 factories.

 

3 Providing Love: Male Migration and Building a Rural Home

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The inkosi’s (chief’s) court was a strange place to talk about sex. Seated on rows of benches that scraped noisily on the concrete floor, attendees were mostly senior men, a fact that reinforced the court’s masculine aura. Trying my best to act deferentially by avoiding eye contact, I stole glances at the inkosi and observed his graying stubble and medium build. The court secretary ushered me forward when it was my turn to talk. The attendees seemed pleased that I spoke isiZulu, even though my speech was far from perfect.

“My research looks at why AIDS is so bad in South Africa,” I said, and then asked for permission to conduct interviews in the chief’s territory. The court fell into a brief pause. After several minutes of questions about my university affiliation and where I was staying in Isithebe, one of the izinduna (chief’s officials) leapt in with a statement and everyone laughed. I realized he was talking about ukusoma, usually translated as “thigh sex” or “to have thigh sex.” This practice was widely reported among young courting couples in Southern Africa and involves a man rubbing his penis between a woman’s thighs; the woman’s legs remain crossed to prevent vaginal penetration. The chief looked at me and, with some trepidation, I said that I had learnt about ukusoma after talking with elderly informants. The audience waited on the chief’s response and, after a brief silence, he laughed, signaling that others could relax into amused glances.

 

4 Urban Respectability: Sundumbili Township, 1964–94

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Mr. Nkosi’s home, completed in 1964, is small and rectangular in shape, one of the thousands of “matchbox houses” built in South Africa’s townships during the apartheid era. Its main entrance opens directly into a small lounge, off which open a kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a tiny bathroom. Paint now peels from the house’s inside walls and the absence of ceiling boards means you can see right up into the corroding asbestos roof. Privacy is virtually impossible in this tiny structure.

When I interviewed Mr. Nkosi he brought out a large collection of photographs. He particularly wanted to show me two: one that commemorates his twenty years of work at the SAPPI paper mill and another that marks his twenty-fifth year of service. In the first he is wearing a smart suit and tie and shaking hands with a white manager, dropping his left shoulder and bending his knees as a sign of respect. In the second he is wearing only a “traditional” ibheshu (loincloth) and is looking at the same manager, who is handing him a commemorative plaque.

 

5 Shacks in the Cracks of Apartheid: Industrial Women and the Changing Political Economy and Geography of Intimacy

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It is an unusually wet fall even for the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The year is 2000 and I am moving into Isithebe’s informal/jondolo settlement from the nearby farm where I have been staying for a few weeks. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. At the farm, the rain nourishes the neatly ordered sugar cane fields that stretch comfortably across the hills above Isithebe; the small white farming community celebrates the heavy rains. Yet in the flat land of Isithebe, residents whose ancestors used to farm this land tie plastic bags around their shoes to navigate the muddy tracks. In the mornings, many walk precariously toward Isithebe Industrial Park, a large collection of factories that overshadow the settlement. When they return, they will find the roofs and walls of their imijondolo leaking water, and rain dripping with infuriating regularity on the floor; the puddles in turn breed mosquitoes that will feed enthusiastically on residents in the coming summer months.

The family I am staying with in the jondolo settlement own a shop, and I volunteer my help in it occasionally. Working as a shop assistant places me, an umlungu (white), in a situation where I can act with some deference and humility and slowly get to know residents. My body adapts to fit this new setting: I learn to place my right hand under my open left palm when receiving money and adjust to speaking mainly in isiZulu, since few residents speak English. One day, after I have interviewed a group of women in a room adjacent to the shop, one lady lags behind. She is in her late forties and has a strong presence, looking at me with a weathered smile. This lady is called Dudu Mabuza, and over the next five years I get to know her quite well. I visit Dudu from time to time at her two-room mud, stick, and stone home and also see her regularly at the shop. One day I ask if she will talk with me about her life.

 

6 Postcolonial Geographies: Being “Left Behind” in the New South Africa

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In the last chapter we met Dudu, an “industrial woman” who found employment as a garment worker in Isithebe’s factories in the 1970s. With a regular income, however small, women like Dudu often shunned marriage to men—who, in turn, had become progressively less able to afford it. Yet in the 1990s, despite the joy of being able to vote for the first time in her life, Dudu faced declining personal, economic, and health fortunes, and her troubles were representative of the harsher circumstances women in the jondolo settlement faced.

In 1999, Jonathan, Dudu’s longstanding boyfriend who lived in her two-room home, was laid off from a large metal-industry firm. He cut a sad picture of an unemployed man battered by his inability to work. As is common with alcoholics, it was impossible to determine when he was drunk: his eyes were always bloodshot, his speech slurred, and his stare never fully engaged. Jonathan died in 2004.

In April 2006 I returned after a year away to find that Dudu herself had passed away and their son, in his early teens, was living alone. As was common in the area, rumors of AIDS followed the death of two lovers one after another.

 

7 Independent Women: Rights amid Wrongs, and Men’s Broken Promises

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In 2000, the U.S.-based band Destiny’s Child released the song “Independent Women.” The R’n’B track quickly became a hit in South Africa: the music of the African-American female band seemed to especially resonate with African women to whom democracy had brought new rights. The song demanded confidently, “All the women who are independent, throw your hands up at me.”

But in the following year the South African male music stars Mandoza and Mdu released a strong musical response. Their hit song “50/50” deliberately mimicked the rhythm and tune of “Independent Women,” but its chorus went “Wonke umfazi oindependent, let’s go 50/50” (Every woman who is independent, let’s go 50/50). The two male artists’ lyrics warned women that if they want equality, then they must not rely on men financially—they must split all costs 50/50.

If the optimistic beat of “Independent Women” accorded with the new liberal democracy, Mandoza and Mdu’s retort illustrates how notions of gender equality quickly became a heated point of contention. And it was “rights,” as I show in this and the next chapter, that often became a lightning rod for these tensions. In the new era of freedom, all citizens had “rights,” and it was often debated whether women had gained too few or too many.

 

8 Failing Men: Modern Masculinities amid Unemployment

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I wanted to cry like a bereaved woman. But I am a man. A man never cries. He bows his head and listens to the pain deep inside him. The making of a man is the ability to contain tears even when they try to force their way out.

—SIPHIWO MAHALA, When a Man Cries

In November 2004, I started my rusty Mazda and drove toward MaDoris’s tavern in Sundumbili township. The warm sun had yet to set; it was still early to go out. Residents sauntered along the narrow pavements, lost in conversation; streets serve as an indispensable point of social interaction in overcrowded townships. I collected three young male friends, all in their early twenties, at a crossroads where they washed and vacuumed cars in exchange for a few rand. In the car, Bheka, Vusa, and Msizi responded to my enquiries about their well-being in a familiar way: “Awukho umsebenzi” (There is no work). The only news seemed to be that one mutual friend had gone back to stealing cars. After a pause, Bheka turned to me and said “We are umnqolo.” The sharp alveolar click of the q filled the word with intensity and purpose.

 

9 All You Need Is Love? The Materiality of Everyday Sex and Love

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When I began living in Mandeni in 2000 I was struck by an apparent paradox: everybody I knew discussed the close connection between money and sex, and yet they said that few “prostitutes” lived in the area. In my attempt to explore the materiality of everyday sex, I talked to factory managers and unions about job losses and declining wages. I looked at how rents had increased relative to wages and how migration to the area had increased despite job losses. I probed census data and found that only 14 percent of “Africans” living in the municipality were married. I searched for a way to describe the material relationships I saw, and found that scholars called them “transactional sex.”

But there was something missing. I became frustrated with the inertia of the concept of “sex” and the way it framed my emerging questions, such as, how had sex become “commodified”? And how had “sexual culture” changed? Over time I began to think that a better set of questions emerged from stepping back and exploring how resource flows, embodied emotions, and social meanings transformed in a shifting political economy. Doing so yielded insight into how the gendered labor market coincided with, and influenced, far-reaching demographic shifts, including rising population mobility and falling marriage rates—but it also took me into the realm of love. Indeed, in everyday conversations, narratives of sex’s materiality coexisted with the widespread celebration of love. In turn, love’s normative value as “good” made it a powerful symbolic anchor for a cultural politics of intimacy.

 

10 The Politics of Gender, Intimacy, and AIDS

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“It is important that we all should recognize the fact that it was very deliberate that we chose this community of Mandeni,” Jacob Zuma told a Mandeni crowd in July 2001. “We do so to highlight our serious concern about the scale and ferocity that HIV/AIDS is engulfing our rural communities and youth in those communities.”1 Zuma, then the country’s deputy president, was speaking at the opening of Mandeni’s loveLife youth center, set up to stem the high HIV rates in the area. I stood next to the large function tent, admiring the pomp and ceremony. The center was a beaming, bright purple, postmodern building that couldn’t have contrasted more with the monotonous, apartheid-era, four-room houses in the adjacent Sundumbili township. That was precisely the aim: to create an island of positive sexuality and motivation in an area known to be badly affected by AIDS.

Established in 1999, loveLife quickly became the largest AIDS intervention program for youth in South Africa, and Mandeni’s youth center was one of sixteen it established. Running through loveLife’s institutional veins was a bold philosophy: it wanted to advance “a new lifestyle brand for young South Africans, promoting healthy living and positive sexuality.”2 In this spirit, loveLife argued that bland ABC programs (advocating abstinence, being faithful, and using condoms) had failed to appeal to its target group of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds.

 

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