“[This paper] rejects as baseless and self-serving the assertion that millions of our people are HIV positive.” -From “Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth and Statistics: HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African.” (A recent internal African National Congress policy document by the late Peter Mokaba)
47,286,839 -the number of estimated worldwide HIV infections on June 19, 2002
The rate of HIV infection in Africa: 1994—9 million 1995—11.5 million 1996—14 million 1997—20.8 million 1998—22.5 million
On Sunday, May 26, I found myself in a dusty, sunny lot in front of a half-finished cathedral south of Johannesburg. The raucous fundraising festival going on was organized to fund the completion of The Church of Our Lady of the Shrine. I had been invited by the local greengrocer in Melville, the son of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira. Although I spent much of the day in his familiar company, it didn’t take me long to figure out one of the hidden truths of off-the-beaten-path Johannesburg: things are different in the South.
The church’s Catholic congregation is primarily South Africans of Lebanese and Portuguese descent. Divided under apartheid, these two ethnic communities eventually came together in a sharing of faith.
The only finished part of the church was a separate tower with two chapels inside and a winding outer staircase leading to a 4.2m high, 12-ton statue of “Our Lady with Christ”, imported from Fatima, Portugal. Poking my head into the upper chapel, my eyes were burned by smoke sputtering from memorial candles. The small, round room was filled with the smell of hot wax, and the walls were baking from the heat of hundreds of small flames. Portuguese and Lebanese names of the departed hung side by side on little bronze plaques. People who never knew each other in life were suddenly given proximity in death. The apartheid government had not stopped at isolating whites from blacks; it had sown division everywhere in an attempt to conquer the human instinct to interact. I had stumbled upon an unexpected example of how the effects of those policies are slowly being washed away.
In the open sanctuary of the unfinished church nearby, beaded rosaries, crocheted napkins, and other trinkets were for sale. There was something jarring about a market meters from where the altar would soon be, but it was nothing compared to the boozing and cruising going on near the karaoke stage outside. After a brief tour of the huge, open cathedral shell, I headed for the food stalls: shawarma, hummus, farturas.
A painful rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was emanating from an overweight bleached-blonde woman wearing a cropped black tank top and spandex pants. Looking around in line, I mentally rolled up the empty brown highveld hills in the distance and the eerie church walls and pulled down a Coney Island backdrop. The people looked right at home: the scene even had the requisite fried doughy foods and ice cream cones. A young Angolan girl waving a Lebanese flag crossed my line of vision and brought me back.
Among the Lebanese and Palestinian men that I met, radical politics were second nature. Self-professed gangsters chattered away in Arabic and English about Al Qaeda cells and money laundering while sipping Southern Comfort-spiked lemonade. Mentioning that my mother is Lebanese earned me friend status. Out-eating one of the loudest men in a shawarma-guzzling competition earned me a temporary place as “one of the boys.” Oblivious to the outsider in their midst, they tipsily mounted the soapbox. This group of shady-looking guys talked about issues ranging from school fees for their kids to a surprisingly liberal take on the government’s AIDS policy (“When will Mbeki get that the blacks must have these medications for free?”). One was worried about his mother’s bingo addiction.
As the sun started to set behind the enormous features of the statue of Our Lady, I wandered away from the group with my greengrocer friend. We used up the last of our festival coupons at the kiddies’ Fish Pond, where I reeled in a box of chocolates. With the white lights of the statue’s tower and the gaudy red and blue bulbs around the karaoke stage shining behind me on the way out, I tried to conjure up a picture of a 25-year-old half-Lebanese white American woman in South Africa, and failed miserably. As the inevitable end of apartheid has proven, some labels just don’t work.
Peter Mokaba died of “natural causes” last week at the age of 44. He was the ANC youth leader during the struggle against the apartheid, becoming famous for his deliberately provocative slogan, “Kill the Boer, kill the farmer” in the run-up to the 1994 elections. He later faced accusations and evidence that he was an apartheid spy for a few years in the 1980’s, but survived the political firestorm and went on to a successful career as an ANC MP and deputy minister. Even more controversial than his past relationship with the apartheid security police and his violent anti-white chanting, however, was his position on HIV/AIDS.
He believed that HIV did not cause AIDS, and that talk of an epidemic was part of a racist plot by Western countries and drug companies to dehumanise African and black people. He claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and denied that millions dying in his own country were HIV positive. Instead, he preferred to talk about poverty as a killer, even going so far as to claim that poverty was the root cause of “acquired immunodeficiency”. He himself lived in a large, comfortable house in the rich Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.
Meanwhile, Peter Mokaba became very ill. He suffered from respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia, well known as piggyback illnesses that come with AIDS. He refused to be tested, and refused anti-retroviral treatment. His friend and fellow AIDS “dissident” President Mbeki stood by him every step of the way.
A traditional doctor has reported that he treated Mokaba with medicines given to AIDS sufferers, but in the end the notorious denialist died of his mysteriously acute respiratory problems. The irony is not lost on HIV positive South Africans (many of whom also suffer from poverty) who would prefer to live.
June 16th was Youth Day for the politically conscious and Father’s Day for everyone else. (Youth Day celebrates the beginning of the 1976 student uprisings, a turning point in the struggle against apartheid.) It was a long weekend, and I spent most of it in and around the shacks of Kliptown in Soweto. I was seeking refuge with people who wouldn’t ignore history in favor of a trip to the mall.
My host was Ma Pam, a smart, straightforward woman from rural Swaziland who came to South Africa in the 80’s and has lived through apartheid, transition, Mandela’s presidency, and more personal trials than I could ever know. She stays in one of the only concrete structures in town, where she graciously allowed me to sleep on the floor in the common area with her children. On Saturday we visited people in shacks of varying size and quality, talking about everything from child abuse to hand-crank telephones.
One tiny shack had the ten residents’ laundry hanging out to dry in front. A large woman came charging out, ranting at the top of her lungs. She was drunk, her huge breasts sagging under a loose shirt. The stale smell of home-brewed beer lingered as she yelled about her troubles—no money, no food, too many children. God may come to others, she said, but He didn’t have time for her. Ma Pam attempted to explain that it was her responsibility to make the first move, but like a jilted lover she would have none of it. “This is what we still struggle with,” another woman said. “We finally have our freedom and she spends it on beer. Her kids will be hungry tonight.” The kids ran around me, giggling and taking turns jumping up to be held.
Saturday night was black, with a sliver of moon blurring through the haze of township smoke. Escorted by a group of trustworthy men from the youth center, I set out into the damp darkness of a different Kliptown. We walked carefully on the dirt paths, narrow and flanked by barbed wire in places, stopping to talk with huddles of people gathered around tin buckets filled with glowing coals. (We decided there was no term in English for these, so we coined “mobile stove”). The groups warming their hands and smoking pungent-smelling joints were mostly men. In my lifetime, these same men gathered as boys, growing older year after year without access to basic rights, education, or steady jobs. Their wives, girlfriends, and daughters continue to fight for these things, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
It was the tangible textures and smells of the night, combined with the joyful children of the day that woke me up inside. My inner revolutionary had been sleeping in the urban comfort of Melville and Pretoria. Few whites see Kliptown in the dark; they would say it’s far too dangerous, and they may be right. Spend the day and take sunny images of smiling kids home to a hot meal. Spend the night and share your humanity in the bitter cold. It becomes dangerously impossible not to challenge the status quo.
Sunday dawned clear and freezing, heralded loudly by an overzealous rooster right outside Ma Pam’s house. The kids from the youth center were running excitedly to the old Battery Center. The bare cement room is now a makeshift theatre with “United We Stand” and a picture of Hector Peterson (the first young person killed in the uprisings) painted on the wall. Performers of all ages hammed it up for the audience, which consisted entirely of people from the community. The kids did gumboot dancing, recited poetry, and sang about the new struggle: HIV/AIDS. Freedom was won by the previous generation, but life hangs in the balance for this one.
At the end of my weekend in Kliptown, I was driving to a friend’s house. The man at the intersection held a sign with the usual words, can’t find work, unemployed, please help, hungry, God Bless. I was the only car at the red light. He looked up at me, and our eyes met. I did not instinctively reach over to make sure my bag was hidden under the seat, nor did I glance away to avoid his gaze. I rolled down the window. “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” I said. He smiled. “It’s okay, sister, thank you for seeing me.”
I was just back from a place where this man might live. It might have been his mother or his sister drinking the last of the family’s coins away out of despair. He might have pulled a gun, shot me, stolen the car, taken my bag, tried to rape me. But he didn’t. The invisible net of rationalization that holds me together in the face of inequality started to unravel. The tears came quickly as the light turned green. I mourned for the heavy residue of old oppression and the inadequacy of good intentions. I mourned for the blind person I had been two days before. My tears fell on a place where I would become that blind person again.
The weight of history here is so great that to survive on a daily basis one learns to hide from it. Moments of true clarity about injustice are rare. Few human beings have the strength to absorb "the big picture" and the will not to run from the pain that ensues: such qualities make great prophets. Being an ordinary human, one moment of crystal awareness about the assumptions I carry for protection was enough.
This week I will go to work at the ISS office in Pretoria with my well-dressed colleagues and try to put the dark smell of sewage, haze, and smoke out of my mind. And yet, I will keep seeking out experiences that both illuminate my path and strain my defenses. I find my strength in truth.