The Mystery of AIDS in South Africa

Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki; drawing by David Levine


One Sunday evening in early May, I went for a walk in one of Johannesburg’s prosperous suburban neighborhoods. The whitewashed stucco houses on well-tended lawns with hissing sprinklers and swimming pools, the twittering birds, the leaning jacaranda trees lined up on quiet streets, resembled similar scenes in Los Angeles or Melbourne, Australia. That is, if it were not for the barbed wire curled above the gates, or the dogs that roared at me from behind each fence as I passed by. By the time I had walked half a block, it seemed as though all the dogs in Johannesburg were barking. I didn’t go far. South Africa lives under a kind of self-imposed curfew. By sundown, the streets from the Cape to the Transvaal are eerily empty. Gates are bolted, alarms are set, car doors locked, and windows rolled up.

South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world that is not at war. Everyone I met warned me to be careful. One acquaintance spent ten minutes listing all the people he knew who, in the past six years, had been shot, killed, raped, or who had been hijacked in their cars, robbed, thrown in the trunk, and then deposited, naked, by a roadside. Another South African told me that the bank in his ordinary, middle-class neighborhood had been robbed five times in six months. A Johannesburg taxi driver said that, in his company alone, a driver is murdered every month. There were more than 50,000 reported rapes in South Africa last year, and this number has recently been rising. Reported rapes are believed to represent only a fraction of the actual number committed, and according to some estimates, as many as a million rapes may have occurred last year. A doctor I met who has worked in black hospitals in the Eastern Cape for decades, through the worst years of apartheid, told me she now sees a growing caseload of gonorrhea and syphilis in children as young as two years of age, the result of an epidemic of child sexual abuse.

Crime in South Africa affects everyone, black, white, Asian, rich, and poor. Last year, someone walked off with an entire automatic teller machine that had been installed inside a police building in Johannesburg. In Cape Town, rapes and burglaries have been committed by members of Parliament, within the Parliament buildings themselves. The sense of suspicion and paranoia seemed to me to pervade even the fancy shopping malls, tourist beaches, and expensive hotels. It even informs the country’s policies, including its response to the greatest health threat in its history.

I went to South Africa for three weeks in May to write about the AIDS epidemic there. AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, which is passed from person to person through sexual fluids, blood, or blood products, or from mother to unborn child in the womb…

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