Infected condoms and pin-pricked oranges: an ethnographic study of AIDS legends in two townships in Cape Town.

Author:Sivela, Jonas


With nearly six million cases of reported HIV infections (UNAIDS 2010), South Africa has the highest number of HIV-infected persons in the world. The majority of those infected are black South Africans. Besides the high infection rate, the South African HIV/AIDS situation has gained attention due to perceptions of the disease that clearly deviate from what Western medicine would consider scientifically proven. The media and previous research have called these perceptions AIDS beliefs or AIDS myths. Earlier academic studies have given rather far-reaching interpretations of the reasons behind these AIDS myths (Parikh and Whiteside 2007; Leclerc-Madlala 2002; Niehaus 2005; Stadler 2003; Nattrass 2012). However, no one to date has thoroughly discussed what these myths or beliefs encompass; as a result, the terms "AIDS myths" and "AIDS beliefs" are rather inaccurate. Rather, my observations made during ethnographic fieldwork among the Xhosa people in Cape Town suggest that the HIV/AIDS related discourse referred to as "AIDS myths" or "AIDS beliefs" has some striking similarities with the narrative genre of legends. (1)


During the first years of the twenty-first century, reports of the so-called AIDS myths started to spread from South Africa, first through the media, and later in academic writing. The most noteworthy and disturbing of these was the one claiming that sexual intercourse with a child would cure the disease--the virgin cure myth--which is also assumed to have increased the number of child rapes in South Africa (Pitcher and Bowley 2002). Other reports mentioned conspiratorial thinking and traits related to traditional mythology (Leclerc-Madlala 2002; Niehaus 2005; Stadler 2003). These reports became even more interesting when they were accompanied by ambiguous statements made by leading South African politicians. For example, South Africa's former president, Thabo Mbeki, questioned the causality between HIV and AIDS in 2000, insinuating that the disease was part of a conspiracy to increase drug sales (Iliffe 2006, 146-147). In 2006, the health minister at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, claimed that beetroot and garlic should be considered as treatments for HIV (Baleta 2006, 620). The current president, Jacob Zuma, caused a stir when he, during a rape trial in 2006, said that he had showered after sex with an HIV positive woman, suggesting that this act had reduced his risk of becoming infected (BBC 2006).

Having examined the South African AIDS policy and its consequences, Parikh and Whiteside regard the political debate about the disease as confusing, suggesting that many people have found comfort in them and that the dubious political statements have had "negative implications for behavior change, prevention, treatment uptake, and efforts aimed at reducing stigma" (2007, 67). Pitcher and Bowley believe that the failure of the South African political leadership to acknowledge the causes, effects, and treatment of the disease has offered fertile ground for "bizarre and dangerous myths to take root and flourish" (2002, 274-275). Although Robins acknowledges that cultural interpretations of the disease are complex, he believes President Mbeki's unconventional view on AIDS, and the government's unscientific views caused profound confusion and uncertainty and possibly made popular forms of AIDS denial and alternative explanations credible (2004). The news media have also discussed the relationship between public statements and "myths"; the view presented has often been congruent with the one above (Bevan 2006; Swarns 2000). Interestingly enough, none of these studies has actually discussed the very material and texture of these "bizarre and dangerous myths" or "alternative explanations."

Many of the previous studies also draw a rather clear line of causation between ambiguous political statements about the disease and the existence of what have been called AIDS myths. I do not contest the impact of the political discourse, but I claim that the relation is not as straightforward as proposed. What has been neglected in previous attempts to understand the presence of "AIDS myths" among politicians is the fact that the politicians in question belong the same narrative culture as the majority of the people in South Africa and are, hence, affected by the same oral traditions as everybody else.

Instead, the search for reasons behind the "AIDS myths" should start by examining more thoroughly their contents. The toolbox applied in previous studies has not been focused or sufficient enough. The "AIDS myths" I observed during ethnographic fieldwork among Xhosa people living in two different townships in Cape Town clearly belong to the global corpus of AIDS legends. In this article, I will approach these legends by scrutinizing the themes and motifs found in them. By doing this, I want to show how the AIDS legends in the townships in Cape Town can be interpreted as a narrative form of resistance against HIV/ AIDS.

Fieldwork in Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha Townships

During Apartheid, South Africans were categorized into four racial groups: white, coloured, Asian and black. The 1950 Group Areas Act assigned non-white South African racial groups (blacks, coloureds and Asians) to specially designated living areas (Western 2002, 712). In Cape Town, black South Africans, the work force from the Eastern Cape, were allocated to townships normally found outside the city center. Many of the townships were already overcrowded at that time and the related infrastructure insufficient (Turok 2001, 2351). When the rules restricting the movement and residency of black South Africans were abolished at the end of Apartheid, the townships' population in Cape Town escalated dramatically. Informal settlements thus emerged on their outskirts giving rise to a variety of social problems such as unemployment, criminality, drug and alcohol abuse, and, most importantly, a high rate of HIV infections, which is also the reason why I chose to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the townships.

In November and December 2009 and January and April 2011, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the townships of Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. The majority of the inhabitants in both townships are Xhosa-speaking black South Africans with roots in the Eastern Cape. Masiphumelele and Khayelitsha differ in size and location. With a population of between 30,000 and 50,000, Masiphumelele is a small township on all South African scales. It is located on the southern part of the Cape Peninsula between Kommetjie and Fish Hoek. Khayelitsha, again, is one of the largest townships in South Africa, with its residents estimated to number half a million or more. It is located on the Cape Flats, a half an hour's drive outside central Cape Town. As relics of the Apartheid era, both residential areas are still clearly secluded from the rest of the city.

Collecting the Data

Fieldwork consisted of interviews, discussion sessions, and participant observation with Masiphumelele residents and clients at the male HIV-testing clinic in Site-C in Khayelitsha. Individual and group interviews and discussions were conducted with a total of 64 people. Many others contributed through less formal encounters. During my fieldwork, two female interpreters assisted me with translating and organizing discussion sessions in Masiphumelele and, most importantly, acquainted me with the cultural landscape of the Xhosa living in the Cape Town townships.

Despite being a male, I still had great difficulties in getting men in Masiphumelele to attend my discussion sessions, even when I approached them without one of my local female interpreters. Therefore, the interviews and discussions in Masiphumelele were mainly held with women at home during the day, while their husbands were working or looking for day jobs waiting at the petrol station in Sun Valley, close to Noordhoek. Men had in general better English skills than the women, probably because many of them use English in their work outside the townships, while many of the women in the townships stay at home with children. The interviews and the discussion sessions were held in Xhosa, English, or both, depending on how well the informant's and my language skills coincided. But, in order to capture the perceptions of HIV/AIDS as accurately as possible, Xhosa was predominantly used in the interviews and discussion sessions, especially with the women in Masiphumelele.

Masiphumelele is a small, almost village-like, township where it is possible to interact with people as an acquaintance instead of the somewhat tense relationship between interviewer and informant. It was therefore natural to consolidate the group discussions at the library by simply "being around" and talking to people. Sometimes, on rare occasions, even the men in Masiphumelele talked to me--if they were alone or in the company of other men.

However, I needed to talk more intimately to men than was possible in mere passing. Luckily, I was allowed to follow the daily routines of an HIV-testing clinic for men situated in a couple of adjoined metal barracks in Site-C in Khayelitsha. HIV testing and being aware of one's HIV status is put forward as an important part of the work against HIV/ AIDS in South Africa. The purpose of the Male Clinic in Khayelitsha is to offer men a low threshold possibility to be informed of their HIV status. If needed, they can receive necessary counseling anonymously, and they are not pressured. At arrival, the clients were told who I was and what I was doing at the clinic. They were also told that they could, if they wished, participate in my research by volunteering to have an extensive discussion or interview with me about the disease and their perceptions of it. The number of men who approached me varied greatly; some days, I had a long queue of potential informants behind my door; at other times, someone...

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