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

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

by Mark Hunter


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253222398
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/02/2010
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mark Hunter is Assistant Professor in Social Sciences/Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough and Research Associate in the School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Read an Excerpt

Love in the Time of Aids

Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa

By Mark Hunter

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Mark Hunter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35533-1


Gender and AIDS in an Unequal World

* * *

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. 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.

Separated by police from Zuma's supporters, gender activists shouted strong support for Khwezi. They argued that prominent politicians should be upholding, not undermining, the post-apartheid constitution's commitment to gender rights. The international and national press generally agreed: the South African Mail & Guardian, for instance, described Zuma's statements as "Neanderthal." The trial's importance, commentators noted, was paramount in a country that was purportedly the rape and AIDS capital of the globe.

Yet, despite this controversy, Zuma's political career went from strength to strength after his acquittal. Three years later, and following a bitter leadership battle within the ruling ANC party, a popular "Zunami" led to his election as president with 66 percent of the vote. How did a self-proclaimed sexist, a man charged with rape (and later corruption), become so popular in a country that overthrew the most oppressive, the most rights-denying, the most illiberal, system of racial rule—apartheid?

Zuma's story came to intrigue me in part because he frequently made assertions about the naturalness of Zulu patriarchy that my research tried to destabilize. Certainly, the obstacles Khwezi and thousands of women like her faced in pursuing a rape charge revealed deep male biases in supposedly liberal legal institutions and in society at large. For many within AIDS circles, the Zuma trial was an iconic moment that laid bare the extent of gender inequalities in the country.

But what also fascinated me was countless women's undoubted enthusiasm for Zuma. Living in my field site, Mandeni, KwaZulu-Natal, in April 2006 during the rape trial, I spoke with numerous isiZulu speakers about the leader; conversations were especially pertinent because he hailed from Nkandla, a rural area only some seventy kilometers to the northwest. In contrast to dominant criticisms, many women I knew told me that Zuma was a respectable man and celebrated the fact that he had several wives. This sentiment was repeated across the country.

Subsequent events were to show that public adulation for Zuma had limits, if these could also be framed in terms of a gendered sense of respectability. In early 2010 it came to light that he had fathered a child out of wedlock with the thirty-nine-year-old daughter of a prominent soccer administrator. Facing sustained criticism, he was forced to apologize publicly.

Nevertheless, the undoubted support of many women for the Zunami provides a revealing entry point into gender in the midst of an AIDS pandemic. Zuma's court testimony in 2006 is a good place to start; it imparts some subtle clues as to his esteem and, by association, the intricate gendering of the South African postcolony. More than simply a titanic struggle between men and women or rights and tradition, the trial represented something of a meeting point for divergent meanings of gender and intimacy.

Consider first Zuma's statement that he had offered to pay ilobolo (bridewealth) to marry Khwezi after she accused him of rape. The English-speaking press poured scorn on this statement, but ilobolo enjoys such gravitas that the isiZulu press did not present Zuma's comments in such negative terms. Indeed, to dismiss ilobolo as simply a patriarchal tradition or a sign of the commodification of relationships (i.e., a bribe) is to miss the way it marks respectability—even more so today than formerly because of the rarity of marriage among young, often unemployed, South Africans. As capitalism bit deeper into the twentieth century, ilobolo connected work to kin and wages to love in profoundly important ways.

Commentators also seized on Zuma's use of the phrase "isibaya sikababa wakhe" (her father's cattle kraal) to refer to a woman's genitalia. Yet the term draws meaning not simply because it signifies men's unbridled control over women. The reference to a cattle kraal warns that a daughter's impregnation will reduce the ilobolo cattle a father receives. In the course of my research, many older people used the phrase and some compared it favorably with a brash contemporary youth culture out of which emerged songs with titles such as "Sika Lekhekhe" (literally "cut the cake," where ikhekhe is slang for a woman's genitalia). Zuma's use of the cattle metaphor spoke—rather ironically, given the context —to an era when society valued not simply sexual pleasure nor sexual conquest but childbirth and kinship.

These points might appear trivial in the face of terrible acts of male power in South Africa today. But they provide important glimpses into the quite profound shifts that have taken place in South Africans' intimate lives over the last generation and which I detail throughout this book. This does not in any way assume that sexual violence should not be an important point of focus—obviously it is the most common reading of the rape trial and a major theme in the study of gender and AIDS in South Africa today. But they raise questions about how fundamental shifts in political economy and intimacy are embodied in other ways. The Zuma rape trial certainly represents masculine views on gender and sex—but it also raises important questions about love, children, labor, and kinship.

AIDS and the Political Economy and Geography of Intimacy

This book is an ethnography of one place, Mandeni, KwaZulu-Natal, and presents arguments about why AIDS emerged so quickly in South Africa. In giving considerable attention to gender, I oppose claims by men like Zuma that culture is static by showing how even some of the most celebrated Zulu "traditions" emerged in the colonial period. At the same time, the profound mismatch between criticisms of Zuma and his popularity among many South Africans, including women, suggests that we must sharpen our analysis still further. To this end, I combine ethnography and history to illuminate the deep connections between political economy and intimacy—a broader term than sex that extends analysis into fertility, love, marriage, and genital pleasure. This allows me, in turn, to argue that profound recent transformations in intimacy at a time of chronic unemployment and reduced marriage rates must be taken more seriously. The key question then is not whether gender is central to understanding AIDS but how the pandemic is gendered. This story is centered on one of the areas worst affected by HIV in the world: in 2008 a shocking 39 percent of women tested positive for HIV in antenatal clinics in the KwaZulu-Natal province.

I tell this story by bringing political economy into constant tension with the everyday lives and emotions of those most marginalized in society. The embodiment of inequalities that drives AIDS today is undeniably a form of "structural violence," to use a term popularized by anthropologist-doctor Paul Farmer. Yet, as Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois note, the concept of structural violence often fails to move from a political-economic context into everyday worlds to capture "how victims become victimizers and how that hides local understandings of structural power relations." By constantly viewing the economic and the intimate as dialectical—that is, in an ever-changing relationship to one another and other socio-spatial processes—I show how new patterns of inequality became embodied among marginalized South Africans. An example of how I take this forward is the book's attention to changing understandings and embodiments of love as the country's political economy transformed.

Inseparable from mapping transformations to gender and intimacy is my attempt to provide a more detailed analysis of AIDS' social roots. The most influential political-economic explanation for AIDS in South Africa is men's long history of circular migration to the gold and diamond mines. Yet this fails to capture key contemporary trends, especially the rise of unemployment and the greater mobility of women. Indeed, the dramatic pace of the pandemic and its specific social geography raise searching questions about the country's new fault lines. From 1990 to 2005, the national prevalence of HIV rose from less than 1 percent to nearly 30 percent among pregnant women. And surprisingly little attention is given to AIDS' geography, despite the fact that four studies have now suggested that the highest HIV rates are found in informal/shack settlements, areas that house some of the poorest South Africans. Such an analysis yields the argument that the scale of the AIDS pandemic was neither an inevitable consequence of apartheid nor simply a product of former president Mbeki's much-criticized questioning of the causal link between HIV and AIDS. A politics of AIDS that connects disease to its social and geographical roots, one already forged in South Africa by health activists, can help reverse infection trends.

In brief, to explain South Africa's rapid rise in HIV prevalence, the book's central argument is that intimacy, especially what I call the materiality of everyday sex, has become a key juncture between production and social reproduction in the current era of chronic unemployment and capital-led globalization. In other words, as unemployment has cast a cruel but uneven shadow on the country, certain aspects of intimacy have come to play a more central and material role in the "fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life." In South Africa, the recession of the mid-1970s signaled a decisive shift from labor shortages to unemployment, and this pattern continued throughout the 1980s and after apartheid ended. Joblessness and labor market casualization engendered an extraordinary social gap between a shrinking group of mostly male core workers and the rest of the population. Of particular importance, women's rapid movement into the labor force, while at first partly driven by industrial employment, has not been matched by employment growth in recent years. Along with reduced marriage rates, these labor market changes represent a generational shift that can be crudely summarized as follows: from mostly men earning a living and supporting a wife to many men and women making a living in multifarious ways.

How can we conceptualize intimacy, an intensely personal and embodied part of life, in relation to making a living in economically hard times? A rich literature on social reproduction now connects the economy, gender, and matters of everyday life: in the realm of intimacy, longstanding themes include how wives' domestic and sexual labor subsidizes capitalist production and how sex workers provide men with not only sex but "the comforts of home." From the 1980s, the ascendancy of free-market economics, together with the relative decline of nuclear families, yielded new research themes. In the current "globalization" era, commentators point out, life for many, especially women, is more insecure: states have rolled back social provisions and a "vagabond" capital is ever more able to shirk support for aspects of social reproduction from health benefits to pensions.

The concept of social reproduction helps to situate South Africans' bodies within wider processes, including colonialism, capitalism, and state practices. However, the dialectic relationship between political economy and intimacy I forefront emphasizes constant, intricate changes to bodily practices that a historical-ethnographic approach can best illuminate. This ethnography, begun only six years after democracy, uses life stories and observations to show how young South Africans navigate, while simultaneously producing, intimate relationships at a time of growing inequalities but political freedom.

As unemployment rose, young South Africans found it especially hard to find work: by 2005 a staggering 72 percent of women and 58 percent of men aged between fifteen and twenty-four were unemployed. In part because of rising unemployment and increasing female mobility, marriage in South Africa has undergone perhaps one of the sharpest reductions in the world, with the proportion of Africans living in a married union halving from the 1960s; in many ways marriage has today become a middle-class institution.

I emphasize in some detail how intense gendered conflicts—a kind of structural distrust—result in part from the almost complete demise of marriage and the tensions inherent in navigating alternative life paths. And this analysis allows me to argue that, from roughly the 1980s, something of a perfect storm of political economy, gender, and household and family trends resulted, just as HIV found its way into South Africa. I summarize these processes as the changing political economy and geography of intimacy. As I explain later, this concept is an analytical tool to highlight certain recent shifts in intimate relations that affected the rapid onset of AIDS; rather than charting unambiguous historical ruptures, much of my empirical evidence will focus on more contradictory tensions that are necessary to understand this and other abstractions.

I also need to state very clearly that I do not conceptualize declining marriage rates as some kind of reduction in morality, ending of love, or "breakdown" of the heterosexual family. These unhelpful tropes have been widely repeated in South Africa and elsewhere for many decades. They tend, as I argue throughout this book, to underestimate how racial rule not only weakened certain aspects of the patriarchal family but also promoted new "patriarchal bargains" between men and women. To understand South Africa today it is, therefore, vital to avoid a picture of apartheid as a blunt force that drove a linear decline of sexual morals; instead we must ask how a range of social processes reconfigured money, morality, dependency, power, pleasure, and pain in different social milieus. Similarly, while I consider political economy in detail, poverty is not, on its own, an adequate explanation for AIDS, since many affected people can be relatively well off.

Instead, I argue that we must pay more attention to how the coming together of low marriage rates and wealth and poverty in such close proximity—common features across Southern Africa where HIV rates are the highest—can today drive gender relations and material sexual relationships that fuel AIDS. Sex workers explicitly selling sex are obviously at high risk of contracting HIV. Yet, more significant to the scale of South Africa's AIDS pandemic, I argue, are boyfriend-girlfriend "gift" relationships that involve material benefits for unmarried women but also feelings of love and a wide range of moral and reciprocal obligations. This is the scenario that I describe as the materiality of everyday sex.


Excerpted from Love in the Time of Aids by Mark Hunter. Copyright © 2010 Mark Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

A Note on Racial Terms xiii

List of Acronyms xv

1 Gender and AIDS in an Unequal World 1

2 Mandeni: "The AIDS Capital of KwaZulu-Natal" 19

Part 1 Revisiting Intimacy and Apartheid

3 Providing Love: Male Migration and Building a Rural Home 35

4 Urban Respectability: Sundumbili Township, 1964-94 60

5 Shacks in the Cracks of Apartheid: Industrial Women and the Changing Political Economy and Geography of Intimacy 84

Part 2 Intimacy After Democracy, 1994-

6 Postcolonial Geographies: Being "Left Behind" in the New South Africa 105

7 Independent Women: Rights and Wrongs, and Men's Broken Promises 130

8 Failing Men: Modern Masculinities amid Unemployment 155

9 All You Need Is Love" The Materiality of Everyday Sex and Love 178

Part 3 Interventions

10 The Politics of Gender, Intimacy, and AIDS 205

Glossary 227

Notes 231

Bibliography 267

Index 293

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