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.