Unpacking the post-apartheid narrative on AIDS and black women

By Gcobani Qambela

I recently attended one of the 2011 Critical Studies Seminar Series hosted by the Department of Sociology and Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. The seminar presented by Carla Tsampiras of the History Department at Rhodes expounded on a paper by Tsampiras titled “Not so ‘gay’ after all – constructing (homo)sexuality in Aids research in the South African Medical Journal 1980 – 1990”.

The paper highlights some of the problematic aspects of medical research in the period of 1980-1990 which she contends tended to focus on certain designated groups.

“You begin to see a very particular image emerge of who was affected by the virus, and this was predominantly homosexual white males, followed by heroine addicts, hookers and Haitians,” she stated.

This identification of these few groups of people consequently had major implications for the way in which medical research was done and conducted, for medical researchers distorted the accuracy of the medical data that they collected for they neglected countless other groups that were affected.

A key question raised by Rhodes University Lecturer, Siphokazi Magadla at the seminar paints the rationale for this short piece. She questioned the extent to which the post 1990 narrative of AIDS has since then shifted from primarily HIV positive white homosexual men (from 1980-1990), to poor black women in the townships/rural areas (post 1990) and consequently repeating the same mistake as made by the medical researchers in the 1980’s/1990’s. Indeed, this cannot be denied – it is happening. The dominant post-apartheid discourse on AIDS has shifted primarily to black women, and black women alone as the carriers and the most affected individuals for the HIV pandemic.

Prevailing discourse tells of black old women having to look after grandchildren while children’s parents have died of AIDS/away in the city looking for work, black women making trade-off’s between HIV infection and economic survival (i.e. sex work), and unemployed women being infected by HIV by migrant worker husbands. Certainly, we all saw the 2004 South African Award winning motion picture ‘Yesterday’ depicting the story of AIDS infected black woman Yesterday who is rejected by her migrant mine labourer husband who infected her in the first place.

Black women have therefore taken the centre stage as the exemplar of dominant narrative post-apartheid discourse on AIDS. This focus on black women repeats the very pattern noted with the medical researchers in Tsampiras paper. While it cannot be denied that black women indeed could be the most affected/infected by AIDS because of prevalent demographic factors in South Africa. However the unconditional focus on black women alone in post-apartheid research arena cannot go unquestioned as it is still revealing of the power relations at play in story telling in South Africa.

The hegemonic narratives in South Africa are still informed by the prevailing power relations in South Africa. Just like the apartheid discourse attributed AIDS to largely economically marginal and inferior groups like Haitians, sex workers and homosexuals, the post-apartheid discourse has emulated this trend. Black women who still occupy the bottom of the economic ladder in South Africa have thus served as easy research targets to a health problem that is not a black women’s problem but rather a national even global problem affected all race groups, economic sectors and geographical areas.

In 2020 a young person will ask what was happening in white women’s lives with regards to AIDS? What were Indian women doing? Were they affected? Where were the men at this point? Etc and very few people will have the answer or adequate data to give a proportionately accurate data of what is happening in South Africa at this time. The AIDS narrative of black women needs to be deconstructed, reconstrued and opened up to give a broader representation of AIDS, not as a black female disease, but as a national problem affecting more than one demographic group.


4 thoughts on “Unpacking the post-apartheid narrative on AIDS and black women”

  1. I completely agree, and have often wondered how to re-shape this research agenda by looking at other groups without undercutting the demographic reality of HIV/Aids. I am also interested in how this focus on black women around HIV/Aids also reveals a lot about what you so rightly note as the prevailing hegemonic narratives in South Africa on race, class and gender. thanks for writing this.


  2. Really great piece Gcobani! I’m glad you refer to the movie Yesterday, which truly opened an even deeper discussion about AIDS transmission and migrant labour in South Africa. Your article opens for us a space where we must demand more critical work on other groups. I worry about the under-studying of White women. Even Carla mentioned in her presentation mentioned that while all of us do know of the fact that during orientation week at Rhodes our local clinic is known to run out of morning after pills, yet the still has been very little discussion about AIDS transmission at the university level. Especially the sexual biographies of the priviledged., especially white women.

    What worries me specifically about this narrative of black women as the ‘face’ of AIDS is that it can give young men the illusion that ‘they’ can get away with AIDS. Ofcourse if our president knowingly slept without protection with a woman with HIV and according to him escaped unscathed by the disease, what then is to stop young boys, especially black boys from believing that ‘they’ too like ‘other’ groups who are not the ‘victims’ of this pandemic, unlike their black sisters can escape AIDS?


  3. Very rich article! this is a good area for resaerch focus.. AIDs is not a black woman’s disaese.. its just that the media made it appear so, even some of the soaps on TV portays AIDs as a black woman trouble… can you sse the power of the media? keep it up Gcobani…


  4. Pardon my very late response here. AIDS discourse is incredibly complex. You have perspectives from all sides including physicians, public health workers, social workers, social scientists, politicians etc. Each group has a different slant for different reasons. The public health worker looks at the populations and risks so that they can adequately target resources for interventions. As a physician I just see that anyone can get HIV. When you get activists and social scientists involved it becomes even more complex because these groups have to naturally frame issues based on whatever focus they see as most important. Interestingly, HIV and AIDS is amazing in that it is an infectious disease that people across the disciplines can essentially frame in a thousand different ways. In the Wisdom of Whores Elizabeth Pisani talks about the motivators behind this (often funding). Suddenly HIV is about women’s empowerment, about violence against women, about LGBT rights, about human rights of the impoverished etc. Even this discussion we are having here shows the tendency we have to categorize a discussion about a disease that biologically can infect any human being (give or take a few genetic superstars). Should we care about white women in South Africa if we do the math and find that ‘only a small percentage’ of them get HIV? Or do we just say yeah White South African women get HIV but not in enough for us to spend money on them. You can insert any group there and find the conundrum that exists when a public health crisis of such epic proportions, and equally epic funding has to be framed by stakeholders.

    The blessing and curse of HIV is funding. Everyone with a cause wants a piece of the action and so groups that once existed independently of HIV are now under its banner. Why can’t we support NGO’s that educate the people about violence against women without bringing HIV into the picture? Why can’t the human rights of LGBT people be a noble enough issue on its own? For as long as any of these groups find the funding (and equally important the attention) plentiful the message from WITHIN the HIV community itself will be INTENTIONALLY fragmented so one NGO can make the case that their black womens empowerment organization, for example needs, more funding that the white/indian/whomever womens empowerment organization down the street. Statistics do help to prioritize resources, but they run the danger pointed out here of denying the fundamental fact, that HIV is not a black/poor/gay disease, but a human disease that is more common is certain populations, but found in EVERY population. (see my physicians bias here lol!)


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