The Emergence of HIV in South Africa
Much like the emergence of HIV in the United States, the first HIV cases in South Africa were found in the homosexual male population. In 1983, two homosexual, South African men passed away from opportunistic infections associated with autoimmune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). In the months following, many other homosexual men became infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which caused the people of South Africa to consider AIDS a disease that solely infected homosexuals. Sadly, this misperception created stigma around becoming infected with HIV.
The media had stuck to the idea that HIV and AIDS were largely a disease of the homosexual population and vilified infection by promulgating the negative stereotypes of men who have sex with men (MSM) through fear campaigns and misinformation. The African National Congress, who had been exiled from South Africa during the 1980s, reported that HIV may be laboratory-developed; others stated that it was spread through tear gas sprayed by the police or through deliberate infection of ‘town wives,’ sex workers who served local communities. The apartheid government seized this information, using the stigma associated with MSM populations to put the issue of HIV on the back burner. At the same time, approximately 100 individuals who were being treated for hemophilia were diagnosed with HIV, caused by the use of tainted blood or blood products use to treat the disease; these people were viewed by the media and the government as ‘innocent victims,’ in stark contrast to the MSM population, whose infections were deemed to have been brought on by their own actions. The apartheid government, during this time, was weary of a rapid spread of HIV in the general population and attempted to monitor the spread of disease. During the mid 1980s, however, few individuals (other than those from the MSM community or hemophiliacs) were found to have seroconverted.
Despite the government’s best efforts to downplay the HIV epidemic that was beginning in South Africa, the disease began to spread throughout the general population in the late 1980s. In 1988, cases of seroconversion started to appear in individuals outside of the MSM community; each year, between 1988 and 1994, saw a doubling of HIV prevalence. As of 1990, the dominant mode of transmission for HIV switched from homosexual to heterosexual intercourse, creating an epidemic among the citizens of South Africa. At the same time, the rate of mother-to-child transmission was on the rise. Throughout the escalation of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, the apartheid government took a hard line stance on HIV and AIDS, calling it a ‘black disease’ and refusing to invest resources to combat the spate. Rather, it continued to use fear tactics and stereotyping to reinforce the ‘typical’ HIV-infected individual, targeting MSM and black populations in country-wide campaigns. Any attempts at preventing the spread of disease were...