Love in the Times of AIDS


Author: Dr Mark Hunter: An Assistant Professor in Social Science/Geography at the University of Toronto.

Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

Reviewer: Bhekisisa Stalin Mncube


LOVE in the times of AIDS is a valuable ethnography of Mandeni, a peri-urban town in the northern part of the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The town epitomises the devastation wrought by the aftermaths of HIV/AIDS. According to the 2008 HIV/AIDS prevalence figures, 39% of women tested positive for HIV in KwaZulu-Natal. There is still no discernible change in statistics since then.

The book presents arguments about why AIDS epidemic surfaced so rapidly in South Africa. It combines 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.

The book lays bare the devastation of families wrought by HIV/AIDS amid disintegrating communities fuelled in part by rising unemployment, poverty and hopelessness. This book is a potent manuscript that offers a glimpse of that twilight zone between courage and fear; love and death; and hope in the mist of hopelessness. The story is profoundly distressing; yet one find solace in its powerful narrative, academic analysis and engaging manner including the author’s personal anecdotes of his stay in Mandeni.

Mark Hunter spent over five years living and working in an informal settlement in Mandeni. As part of his in-depth study: Hunter conducted interviews, surveys, collected love letters, cell phone text messages, oral histories and archival materials. This allowed Hunter to detail the everyday lives and emotions of those infected and affected by the virulent epidemic. In the process he learned IsiZulu language, and developed a deep understanding of its nuances: hence he used more than hundred IsiZulu words to bring to bear the emotion and cultural meaning of the words spoken by his subjects in a manner that offers them dignity while enriching the experience of the reader.

The central argument of the book: AIDS is a social problem that is embedded in uneven development, skewed resource allocation, rapid urbanisation, housing backlogs in emerging towns, apartheid urban design, rising levels unemployment and poverty. Hunter argues that to explain South Africa’s rapid rise in HIV prevalence, we must note that intimacy, especially what he calls 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 globalisation. 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”. Through Hunter’s study of history and his training as a geographer, he is able to map a link on how first apartheid, and then chronic unemployment have become entangled with the ideas about femininity, masculinity, love and sex that have created an economy of exchange (deadly cocktail) that perpetuates the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

He firmly tells us that the drivers of the epidemic are deeply rooted in the fault lines of the society, and it is these fault lines that need to be tackled. AIDS stands, Hunter suggests, as a symptom of all ills rooted in colonialism and apartheid that have not transformed since the dawn of democracy in 1994. It is an indictment on the new South Africa, 16 years after its birth.

To explain the connection between the political economy and intimacy – what I call: the hierarchy of ubufebe multiple sex partners – Hunter’s study reveals shocking antics of men and women in Mandeni. He tells of classification of multiple lovers – a main boyfriend/girlfriend being known as istraight. The istraight is entitled sometimes to sex (no prior HIV test required) without a condom and that the entitlement extends less to ishende (secret lover) and, or, isidikiselo (secondary lover).

Another fascinating find in Hunter’s field work is a special role of sugar daddies (traditionally men who sleep with younger girls). He describes these girls’ relationship with sugar daddies as more than just “casual” or “secondary”, but providers of material support. One of Hunter’s interviewee explains: When he comes to me he will ask if I am involved. Then I will either tell him that I am single, or that there is someone I am involved with, and that he will be the second one. Then to the third one I won’t say he is the third; I will say that he is number two. In this hierarchy of ubufebe (refers to sexually loose woman; or Isoka lamanyala for a man) each man is linked to specific expenses (e.g., “one each for money, food, and rent” or “ministers of finance, transport, and entertainment). On the other hand some boys can provide sex with men for material rewards. These providers could entirely be different to istraight, ishende and isidikiselo. It is this economy of exchange that enables the historical gender inequalities, apartheid male centred economy, rising women urbanisation, chronic housing shortages as well unemployment to seamlessly fuel the transmission of AIDS. Unless, the book seems to suggest, the South African government tackles the structural economic stagnation, coupled with its gender blind social services delivery – the Abstain, Be faithful and Condomise maxim (ABC) of AIDS will remain a non-starter.

To this end, Love in the times of AIDS offers an outlet for expression, contemplation, and a deep understanding of fault lines of AIDS transmission. It is also a moving obituary of those who succumbed to the virus while the former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki dithered. This book is a blueprint for authorities to understand AIDS beyond the bio-medical approach: AIDS as a social problem. The book is a must read for policy makers, AIDS activists, and all those who care about the future of our country.

REVIEWER’S NOTE: All material facts have been checked by the author.

Bhekisisa Mncube is a freelance/media consultant based in South Africa.