HIV/AIDS in South Africa

Some facts and myths and their role in the nation’s distrust of western medicine

Seminar Paper 2008 21 Pages

Didactics - English - Applied Geography


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. HIV/AIDS and social developments in South Africa
2.1 Changes in South African social structures and their effect on the spread of HIV/AIDS
2.1.1 Marriage, promiscuity and HIV/AIDS in Liz McGregor’s Khabzela
2.2 Other contributing factors to the spread of HIV/AIDS with regard to South African Society

3. HIV/AIDS and the South African government

4. AIDS and its myths
4.1 HIV/AIDS myths in the South African context
4.2 HIV/AIDS myths on a world-wide level
4.2.1 The Green Monkey Theory
4.2.2 The Conspiracy Theory
4.3 Reasons for South African distrust and suspicion of the West and its medicine
4.3.1 General indoctrination and patronisation by the West
4.3.2 Abuse of power by the West with regard to medical matters
4.3.3 South Africa’s Apartheid past and the governmental role in the national HIV/AIDS discourse
4.3.4 Mbeki’s letter, its line of argumentation and its representativeness for the South African situation

5. Conclusion and outlook

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The following paper aims at giving a condensed insight into the large body of myths and beliefs revolving around the probably most crucial and controversial topic of the 20th and 21st century with regard to human existence on a world-wide level: the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Since the first discoveries of the virus in human beings in the late 20th century in the US as well as on the African continent, its real origin has not yet been determined and most importantly, a cure could not be developed until today. Research has made enormous progress though and has enabled infected people to extend their life expectancy after the illness’ outbreak up to twenty years with the help of antiretroviral medication. But still, the disease remains a “killer disease,” since yet incurable and thus ultimately incontrollable for human beings and their otherwise advanced and sophisticated medical science.

The uncertainty HIV/AIDS creates with regard to its origin triggers conceivable concern and simultaneously an adamant wish to finally being able to attribute its origin and aggressive spread to a certain source. Hence, in order to give a name to what has been happening to mankind for the last decades, people clasp at straws to make the phenomenon understandable in accordance to their personal world-view. Since the unrelenting spread of the virus is to be reported from all over the world, every society and culture, depending on context, tries to make sense of the issue for itself, which means, finding reasons for HIV/AIDS that seem most probable against the background of the respective nation and its personal history. Particular explanations, when having been maintained and repeatedly used over a longer period of time, may then sometimes develop into outright myths that bear witness of a larger social and cultural movement of reasoning within the respective nation. Considering their foundation in a nation’s history and its experience with other countries, those myths cannot be regarded as mere expressions of phantasm though but rather as cultural and social constructs that attempt to explain the world people live in.

Those myths and their respective functions shall be pursued and analysed in the following essay, setting the primary focus on South Africa with its idiosyncratic set of beliefs on the one hand and the West as its perceived opponent on the other. With a special focus on South Africa, it shall be investigated initially in how far social developments have contributed to the enormous spread of the disease, followed by some information on the national political debate on the issue ever since South Africa’s liberation from the Apartheid regime. The last aspect will then be concerned with South Africa’s fears and outright refusal of Western medicine which, as will be argued, is rooted, among other reasons, in the nation’s experience with the West – encompassing Europe and the US – which is being perceived as the oppressive colonial force, part of a racist and paternalistic system.

2. HIV/AIDS and social developments in South Africa

Although HIV/AIDS is an illness that is encountered all over the world, it somewhat manifests itself differently with regard to the scope of its impact on a nation and the social groups concerned or affected. Whereas in Western countries the disease is primarily being documented among the male homosexual community, which has in turn led repeatedly to heated discussions about sexual preferences and lifestyle and their connection to HIV/AIDS, the African continent and South Africa in particular have witnessed quite a contrary development with regard to the disease’s impact. In their case, the virus is found among all social classes and sexes; individual social groups cannot be readily identified as being more likely to be infected by the virus and thus, HIV/AIDS does not seem to be directly related to homosexual affiliation. On the contrary, reported cases of people frequently infected with the virus in South Africa often verify their heterosexual orientation.

What might have led to this totally different manifestation of the illness in South Africa when compared to the West? One attempt at giving an explanation may be made by backtracking nowadays’ social structures in South Africa which have changed throughout time due to different factors.

2.1 Changes in South African social structures and their effect on the spread of HIV/AIDS

Analysing South African social structures necessarily brings into view its unique history which had come to be characterised by social instability wrought upon the nation by Apartheid as a highly oppressive and debasing system of control and power, manifesting itself initially by the means of European occupation and later being extended to a systematic form of government which practised racial segregation and denigration on a grand scale. The impact of Apartheid primarily took its toll on indigenous South African social structures with its predominant practice of segregation throughout the nation. Racial segregation of different tribes in so-called homelands as well as the parting of husbands and wives in the course of establishing a work-force supportive of the Apartheid system entailed geographical separation and interpersonal distance and isolation. While men would be usually situated near the white city centre in so-called townships in order to be at hand as a lucrative work-force, women married to those men would typically remain in their homelands, taking care of the children springing from the marriage; a situation soon rendering traditional family structures non-functional. Similarly, single men and women would come to the townships that were then later evolving into vibrant urban areas inhabiting quite distinctive sorts of South African people as well as immigrants to the nation.

Different from largely traditional social practices in rural homelands, such urban areas developed a different social structure in which native South African customs and traditions no longer had their legitimate place. Polygamy as an indigenous marital tradition in South Africa could no longer be practiced as such, considering its primarily economic function within South African rural societies (cf. Agadzi 1989, 176). Economic life was different in urban areas though and consequently, especially the sexual character of interpersonal encounters changed along with it. Sex was not necessarily any longer conducted within the traditional restraints of polygamous marriage but rather served as some sort of compensation for the no longer obtainable family life. Under the reins of Apartheid, residents of such urban areas were allowed only little spare time for themselves and consequently came to indulge in whatever little diversion there was available to them. Repeatedly, this would be prostitution where men could spend some of their hard earned money in order to distract themselves for a couple of hours, whereas women would be grateful for the little extra-money they could earn to pay for food and clothing for themselves and their children. The business of prostitution has remained quite lucrative in urban areas of South Africa after the abolition of Apartheid and also until today. Hence, “sexual intercourse [in South Africa’s urban areas has become] […] one of the most readily available means of getting money and pleasure, and venereal disease, its accompaniment” (Agadzi 1989, 174), which leads back to the topic of AIDS, an illness that, under such conditions, has had the chance to spread all over the nation quite easily, especially when considering the predominant lack of sexual education and medical care in that context.

At the same time, even if people do not indulge in paid sex, the general sexual behaviour of people has still considerably changed. Since polygamy as a traditional institution in marital relations could not be maintained in urban areas, relationships between men and women have developed into a different direction. Marriage has become a more or less individual affair by now, rendering the cost of the ceremony – if traditional rites are included – very expensive and consequently, loose sexual relations or even promiscuity have come to replace traditional polygamy and marriage to a large extent (cf. Agadzi 1989, 171).

Throughout the last decades, all those factors combined have lead to social conditions in South Africa that are conducive of the spread of the deadly disease named AIDS that seems hardly possible to control considering the lack of information and education on the side of African citizens, not to mention the failure of an adequate governmental intervention.

2.1.1 Marriage, promiscuity and HIV/AIDS in Liz McGregor’s Khabzela

Liz McGregor’s novel Khabzela exemplifies the aforementioned social problems by narrating the life of its main character Fana. When planning on a marriage with his girlfriend Sibongile, the parents on both sides insist on a traditional wedding ceremony and certain rites as well as on lobola, a payment to the bride’s family, traditionally made in African cultures via the exchange of cattle for instance. The money being paid, the bride in turn is obliged to serve her husband well, which, among other things, means bearing him many children. Thus, “[…] there is always a feeling of property acquisition on the part of the man” (Agadzi 1989, 171), which, in McGregor’s story, brings Fana and his family to the conclusion that the former has the right to find another woman that can bear him children after Sibongile turned out not to be fertile. Aside from the sexual freedom Fana liked to enjoy anyway, he thus felt justified to “sleep around,” misinterpreting traditional polygamy for actual promiscuity, a phenomenon repeatedly occurring with men that will not realise that social structures in African urban areas have drastically changed. “Even those who have taken the vow to stick to one woman find it exciting to take a number of mistresses. Thus, polygamy still goes on unofficially, and prostitution pervades the society in all shades” (Agadzi 1989, 176). Eventually, as can be expected, this leads to Fana’s fate of acquiring the virus, unknowingly infecting his wife Sibongile as well.



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University of Dortmund
HIV/AIDS South Africa



Title: HIV/AIDS in South Africa