In Other Words

An Eerie Silence

Why is it so hard for South Africa to talk about AIDS?

Illustration by Brian Rea for FP
Illustration by Brian Rea for FP

In 2005, as South Africa’s government was cautiously revising its restrictive policy on antiretroviral drugs, I set out to write a book exploring how ordinary people would react: whether they would take the medication, or whether the stigma would prevent it. One of my first steps was to review the imaginative and intimate literature on AIDS in South Africa — and I discovered, to my surprise, that there was almost none. Mounds and mounds of words had been written on AIDS, of course, but there was little creative or personal writing about it. I found this quite shocking. As many as 800 South Africans had been dying of AIDS and 1,000 more contracting the virus every day at least since the late 1990s. Untold numbers of people had lost loved ones, sons and daughters, spouses and siblings. And yet, reading through South African literary offerings, one would not have known that a flood of young deaths was washing through the land. In the West, AIDS memoirs had long ago become a genre in their own right; in South Africa, it was as if the country and its writers had instead decided to change the subject.

Looking back, one can see signs of this silence right at the beginning, long before it was widely recognized that AIDS would reach pandemic proportions. In August 1988, when most South Africans thought of AIDS as a Western problem and black politics was consumed by the fight against apartheid, a group of sociologists presented a draft paper on HIV to a small audience in Johannesburg. Although HIV prevalence in the country was then less than 0.1 percent, the authors wrote, the mining industry was structured in such a way that it could potentially disperse the virus to all four corners of the region. South Africa’s quarter-of-a-million migrant mineworkers lived two lives, many with at least two long-term lovers, one at work and the other at home in the countryside.

Shortly after the presentation, Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and one of the country’s most powerful anti-apartheid figures, called Eddie Webster, director of the institute that had undertaken the research, and asked that the paper be canned, complaining that the research presumed black men to be promiscuous and was thus tinged with racism. As Webster told me recently, the two men haggled. Webster tweaked the report’s language. Ramaphosa remained unsatisfied. Eventually, they agreed that the paper could be published — but not in South Africa.

Six years later, Nelson Mandela made it known that Ramaphosa was his preferred candidate to follow him as South Africa’s president. In the end, Mandela was overruled and succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, whose presidency will be remembered above all for his questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS. Yet, as the tetchy exchange between Ramaphosa and Webster suggests, Mbeki was not necessarily the outlier he is often said to be. His dabbling in quack science and AIDS denialism was symptomatic of a great unease in South Africa’s political culture, one that has translated into an eerie silence on the page.

What Ramaphosa did when he heard the sociologists’ presentation was to read AIDS as an accusation, one leveled by the West at African men. More than a decade later, Mbeki, in a carefully honed speech that is surely the most consequential piece of writing about AIDS in South Africa, made this accusation explicit. "Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world," he told an audience in 2001 at the University of Fort Hare, "they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust."

To this accusation Mbeki added the themes of greed and exploitation. Western governments, he argued, wanted new markets for their giant pharmaceutical manufacturers; there was much profit to be made from the idea that Africa was sick from too much sex and that its population would be saved by antiretroviral treatment. In an unsigned pamphlet released by the African National Congress in the early 2000s — much of which, Mbeki later revealed to his biographer, he penned himself — drug manufacturers, referred to as "the Powerful and Conspicuous," are accused of bullying the South African government into feeding its citizens toxic drugs and bribing the country’s activists into becoming their "defenders, representatives and sales agents."

As University of Texas scholar Neville Hoad argues in his forthcoming book on the literature of HIV/AIDS, this theme of drugs, money, and exploitation is the subject of the most influential work of fiction to emerge from the pandemic, John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. Its immediate subject is tuberculosis — a multinational drug company uses Africans as guinea pigs to test a new TB drug — but it makes clear that it is talking about AIDS too, and it emerges in part from the questions Mbeki raised.

So the agenda set by black South African nationalists has played a role in producing one widely read literature. But it has also inhibited another. That a country newly freed should stare so unhappily over its shoulder, wondering what its former masters might be thinking and scheming, is deeply ironic. It has meant that South Africa was not really permitted to examine its own, private experience of AIDS, for to be black and to write about one’s sexuality or one’s illness was in many quarters considered an act of betrayal, as if one were delivering ammunition to Western racism.

Only two notable AIDS memoirs have been published in South Africa to date, both by gay white men — this in the midst of a pandemic transmitted largely between black heterosexual men and women. The two memoirs, Witness to AIDS, by Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, and AIDSafari, by Adam Levin, jointly won South Africa’s premier nonfiction award in 2006. Cameron’s book combines intimate personal testimony about his own sense of shame — he kept quiet about his HIV status for many years — with passionate policy advocacy. Levin describes himself with unadorned simplicity as a breezy, happy-go-lucky party animal who suddenly had to confront an ailing body and the prospect of death. Both authors deliberately build eloquent bridges between themselves and black South Africans with AIDS. Yet neither book can be said to come from the heart of the pandemic.

Outsiders have greeted this silence with exasperation. When Zakes Mda, one of South Africa’s foremost black writers, published his opaquely allegorical novel, The Heart of Redness, in 2000, American novelist Norman Rush gasped. "The AIDS pandemic is absent, totally absent," he wrote in the New York Review of Books. "That’s an impossibility."

Mda was incensed. "Why didn’t he ask Coetzee why he didn’t write about AIDS?" Mda remarked to a New York Times reporter in 2006. "In Disgrace" — J.M. Coetzee’s celebrated 1999 novel, controversial in South Africa for the sharp questions it posed about the country after apartheid — "there’s not even a mention of AIDS. Nobody takes issue with him because he’s white. But because I’m black, it’s my issue."

Indeed, white people trying to interpret black people’s experiences of AIDS has become something of a genre in its own right. Liz McGregor’s Khabzela and my own book, Sizwe’s Test, both bestsellers in South Africa, are really investigative pieces, trying to plumb the depths of AIDS in the black experience. In Khabzela, McGregor shadowed a famous Johannesburg talk-show host, an icon of black urban culture, during the last months of his life. When he discovered that he had AIDS, Khabzela did everything right. He outed himself to his listeners, spoke intimately about his feelings, and started a course of antiretroviral treatment. And then he stopped the treatment and began visiting one quack after another, his search for a cure growing more frantic as his body withered.

MCGREGOR’S BOOK LAYS open what is perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the pandemic: It is possible to chatter about AIDS incessantly, and many people in South Africa do, even while plummeting down the abyss of denial. In fact, people talk about AIDS in South Africa all the time — in newspapers and magazines, on radio and television — and yet, a special language is reserved for AIDS, a numbed, meaningless, evasive language that speaks incessantly and abstractly of hope and togetherness and thus manages to change the subject even while raising it.

Perhaps the most blatant example is the ubiquitous campaign material of loveLife, a richly funded HIV prevention initiative. Its enormous, omnipresent billboards boast chic, sexy, multiracial young people in provocative poses with tag lines like "What’s Your Position?" and "Everyone He’s Slept With, Is Sleeping With You." Deafeningly absent, as American writer Helen Epstein has pointed out, are any representations of illness, of frailty, of death. Loudly, ostentatiously, the campaign transmits an awkward silence on the reality of AIDS.

Far from the stifling political correctness of the mainstream media, meanwhile, talk of AIDS has seeped into South Africa’s blunt, sometimes cruel, folk traditions. While researching my book, I found that a rural, peasant version of Mbeki’s politics was raging in South Africa. Many were convinced that AIDS was really an unannounced campaign of racial genocide, that the virus had been invented in the West, or that a cure was being concealed. I also found that in a culture prizing fertility and inheritance, the idea that one’s semen was poisoned carried an excruciating measure of shame, shame that has been transformed into art in some peculiar ways. In his revelatory forthcoming book, AIDS, Politics, and Music in South Africa, anthropologist Fraser McNeill records the lyrical poetry of zwilombe, an old tradition of traveling minstrels in northern South Africa. Jester-like guitar players and singers, the zwilombe are considered madmen and thus permitted to sing of matters that are usually taboo. McNeill records a poem that speaks of AIDS as divine revenge for sexual excess and abortion: "AIDS, AIDS, AIDS, the revenge of the unborn…/The vagina is related to Rwanda and Kosovo./The pussy being known for pleasure, instead of progeny."

The commentary about HIV that has saturated colloquial language on the South African street, too, is all about sexual excess and greed. References to three letters are implicitly understood to mean HIV. If it is said, for instance, that a man drives a BMW Z3, it means that he is HIV-positive and implies that he contracted the virus by living too fast. A person with HIV is also said to have won the lottery: If you play enough times, you will get it — a cruel and nasty commentary on the fate of those who have serial lovers.

One wonders what Mbeki, after all his charges that Western language on AIDS accused Africans of being insatiably horny, makes of the rude, blunt connections ordinary South Africans have drawn between AIDS and sexual excess. Perhaps Mbeki might say that Western prejudice has invaded African culture, that it now delivers its toxic message via African mouths. One can see, in this fraught political context, why black South African writers might hesitate before exploring intimacy.

AND YET, FOR ALL THAT a defensive nationalism has chased uncensored thoughts from mainstream prose and displaced them onto the street, there is a triumphant exception, a novel of great power and originality, and it seems to have opened a door for others. Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe was published in 2001, when Mbeki was at his most vocal about HIV. Mpe had grown up poor in rural South Africa, arrived in Johannesburg young and penniless just when the transition to democracy was roiling the inner city, and made good. He lived frugally in a tough neighborhood while studying at university and became a lecturer in African literature, his office at the University of the Witwatersrand looking out over the wild inner city where he came of age. Welcome to Our Hillbrow is chillingly prescient on the xenophobic violence that would erupt in Johannesburg and elsewhere several years later, but most of all, Mpe is interested in the sexuality of respectable young Africans. They fall in and out of love, they have affairs, and two of them discover that they have AIDS. His novel thus chisels a hole through a very thick wall of silence.

It is a hole through which others are slowly beginning to speak. In the last few years, several surprising novels by and about young black South African men have appeared. You can tell just by the titles that their subject matter is raw and private: Thando Mgqolozana’s A Man Who Is Not a Man (2009), Siphiwo Mahala’s When a Man Cries (2007), Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog (2004) and After Tears (2007). None of these books is foremost about AIDS; some of the young authors explain compellingly why they need to deal with AIDS obliquely in a recent collection of interviews on African writing and AIDS called Blood on the Page, edited by Lizzy Attree. But all are distinguished by the fact that they explore the intimate territory that nationalist politics in South Africa had for years appeared to place off-limits. Mgqolozana’s book, for instance, is an intense first-person narrative about a traditional Xhosa circumcision ceremony to initiate boys into manhood that goes horribly wrong. He thus introduces into South African literature a triad that was once untouchable: African culture, a black penis, and a man’s shame.

When this emerging literature is old enough to be named and canonized, I think it will be said that Mpe was the forerunner, the one who started to give voice to what had once been mute. And yet, Mpe’s story, too, is suffused with a difficult silence. Three years after his novel was published, Mpe died at age 34 of an illness that was never disclosed.

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