By Norm Dixon
South Africa is facing a health crisis of massive proportions if the spread of AIDS is not bought under control. Estimates from three recent studies agree that a post-apartheid South Africa may find itself losing between 150,000 and 200,000 people to AIDS by the year 2000 if action is not taken immediately. Within 10 years the number of people with HIV could be 5 million.
"The AIDS situation is becoming worse every day. This is because the government, and everybody, was late trying to find the way to educate people. We heard of AIDS for the first time in 1982, and since then lots of people died ... nothing really was happening in those years until the lesbian and gay communities stood up and organised our own education and support groups", Tseko Simon Nkoli explained in an interview with Green Left Weekly.
Nkoli works for the Johannesburg-based Township AIDS Project as an AIDS educator. He is also coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW) and a member of the African National Congress.
The Township AIDS Project was started by gay and lesbian groups in Johannesburg. "We couldn't get money from the government or from anyone else in the country. Our money was raised in consultation with lesbian and gay organisations in Norway."
As well as lack of government support and funds, AIDS education has been hampered by backward attitudes in the media, which further entrench such attitudes in the majority black population. The media, Nkoli said, for many years spread the myth that AIDS was a "white, gay men's disease".
In recent years there has been a proliferation of AIDS organisations in Johannesburg, "which we are trying our best to network with. Many are non-government organisations: the trade unions, church groups like South African Council of Churches, women's groups, medical groups and lesbian and gay organisations.
"At the government level there are two organisations — the South Africa Communications Service and AIDS Unit — and they have just begun a big newspaper, television and radio campaign."
The Townships AIDS Project differs by going into the townships and doing direct, one-on-one AIDS education. Nkoli believes that this is the best form of education, but his group faces an uphill battle to provide it adequately. Nkoli was especially critical of the government education programs.
"So many people are illiterate. People in the rural areas don't have TVs and radios. The majority of the people can read only their own languages, while everything is in Afrikaans and English. We've been requesting that things be translated into black languages. We can't do it because NGOs don't have money.
"The Township AIDS Project is the only AIDS education ly with people living in the black townships. We concentrate mainly in Soweto. We also go out to other townships, but we can't reach the majority of the townships. We don't reach the Natal townships, we don't reach the Orange Free State townships, we don't even reach the Pretoria townships.
"We have only a staff of four people doing outreach work and one coordinator. Each is doing the work of five ... As an example: I am doing outreach work to lesbian and gay people; to heterosexual sex workers; to men who are having sex with other men [but do not identify themselves as gay] and to single men in the hostels.
"It is very difficult to reach those people. It is also dangerous." A Township AIDS Project worker was recently shot while on duty. "We have to be very careful about how we approach people. Some people get offended ... But people have to talk to them because they don't read."
Progress remains slow because of the myths that surround AIDS. "We organise a group of men, we talk to them, we may get some response, but most of the time they say 'Go away, we're not gays, we've got wives'. But in South Africa, 85% of those with AIDS are in the heterosexual community.
"They ask, 'Why are you bringing the government's issue here?'. Some people believe that CIA scientists have put the AIDS virus on condoms."
Nkoli explained some of the main ways that HIV is spread in South Africa. Special education programs must be devised to address them, both by the current regime and the future African National Congress government:
- Backward attitudes to safe sex. Condoms in South Africa are still viewed negatively. People say the government is trying to depopulate the black nation. Young people say it is an American idea to destroy sex. Women claim they need protein from their men!
- Migration. Men come to live in single-sex hostels in the cities to enable them to work in industry and the mines. While in the city, they visit sex workers and have sex among themselves without using condoms. They go back home after a year, and HIV is spread everywhere else. Long distance transport drivers also don't protect themselves. We work closely with the drivers' union to explain why they must use condoms.
- The suppression of homosexuality. Lots of gay men are too afraid to come out. They can't go and meet other gay men at decent places like a gay bar, they cannot go to a place where gay men can speak freely about themselves. Because of the suppression of homosexuality, married gay men have quick sex with whoever they meet without knowing their history, and most of the time it is unprotected.
- The prisons contribute to the spread of HIV. The prison authorities still don't believe that sex happens in prisons. In South Africa, a lot of men go to prison. They have sex with other men in prison, they come back to their wives and infect them as well.
"Unless these things are identified and dealt with, South Africa is going to be the country hit most by HIV within a couple of years."
Fortunately, the African National Congress seems to be taking the AIDS crisis seriously. The last ANC national conference made AIDS prevention a high priority. Each ANC branch is to appoint an AIDS officer, and the ANC National Executive Committee is to appoint a subcommittee to work with other organisations in the field. The ANC has also included the main demands of a gay and lesbian charter into its proposed bill of rights to be incorporated in the new constitution.
The Township AIDS Project can be contacted by writing to PO Box 23017, Joubert Park 2044, Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Delmas treason trial
Simon Nkoli has been an activist in the South African freedom movement for many years. In 1984, as a member of the Vaal Youth Congress and the Vaal Civic Association, he helped organise protests against rent increases in the townships. The protests were part of a much broader upsurge that was taking place, especially against the pro-apartheid black local authorities and the recently introduced racist tricameral parliamentary system.
At 9 a.m. on September 3, 1984, thousands marched from the townships around Johannesburg with the aim of converging at a single rally. Nkoli told Green Left Weekly what happened then: "The police as usual intervened. They wanted the march to disperse. People became angry. Police started shooting at our people, setting dogs on them. There were police casspirs [armoured cars] all over the place ... We tried to keep control of the marchers but we couldn't. By 11 a.m. lots of people had been shot dead."
The police arrested the organisers of the protest, among them Simon Nkoli. They spent over a year in detention before being charged with high treason, five counts of murder, subversion, terrorism and furthering the aims of banned organisations, namely the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party. The trial was shifted from Pretoria to Delmas, a small rural town in eastern Transvaal "where they voted no in the recent referendum", because the regime feared mass demonstrations would be held.
The remote location of the trial made it very difficult for the defendants to maintain their morale, knowing that they faced the death penalty if convicted. "Our parents could only come on Tuesdays and Thursdays because it was very expensive for them. They had to wake up at two o'clock in the morning so that they could be there at 10 o'clock. They would have to leave just after lunchtime so that they could be at home before sunset."
The trial lasted three and a half years. The state presented more than 170 state witnesses, many of them defectors from the ANC. At the end, 11 people were acquitted and 11 others convicted. "I was one of the lucky ones", Nkoli said.