South Africa and the tragedy of AIDS

Durban is our first port of call in South Africa. At first glance it has little going for it. It certainly isn’t attractive when seen from the cruise ship as we enter the port. The second glance isn’t much better. It has a beautiful three mile beach, called the Golden Mile (counting isn’t their strong point), lined with smart hotels and shopping malls, but this is the only area of the city where it is safe for tourists to be. The ships staff informs us in no uncertain terms not to venture outside of the beach area. We dock less than a mile away from the beginning of the Golden Mile but we are warned not to walk there. The ship lays on a shuttle bus to ensure our safety.

We have no intention of spending any time in Durban. We have arranged to leave the ship for three nights as we have booked to go on a Safari in an area called Sabi Sands which borders on to the Kruger National Park.

We fly to a small town called Nelspruit where a car meets us to take us on the two hour drive to the Safari Camp. Our driver is a huge bear of a man who hardly fits into the driving seat. His hands envelope the steering wheel and it seems as if he could just snap it in two if he wanted. He drives carefully and talks non stop. He has a captive audience and makes the most of it.

He is an Afrikaans of Dutch descent, and wants to talk South African Politics. He is actually most interesting when he talks about the AIDS crisis and how it is devastating the population. AIDS is not a gay disease in Africa, it is a straight disease. We have already noticed that in the airport restrooms there are huge dispensers of condoms that are free. A great gesture but it is too little too late.

There are eleven counties that make up South Africa and ten years ago a survey estimated that in two of the counties over 40% of the populations had HIV. And things have not improved since then. We are in one of those counties. Our driver does AIDS work in the townships and says that many families are now run by children as both parents have died from the disease. The problem is not helped by the fact that black South Africans do not look after their sick. Instead they kick them out of their communities. Everything is fine while they are just HIV positive and and showing no signs of the disease, but once AIDS kicks in, they get kicked out. Their community abandons them and they have to rely on their children to look after them.

They often refuse to go to doctors and when they do go they ignore their advice.

The spread of the disease is exacerbated by the fact that there is little work in the townships, and so many of the men leave their families to work in the cities. Away from their wives they have sex with other women and often become HIV positive. They then return home and infect their wives.

It is a sad story that becomes heartbreaking when we hear that in the early days of the disease there was a belief that having sex with a virgin could cure you, so many young girls were raped.

We drive through one township after another. Outside of Capetown the townships are desperate affairs made up of corrugated metal shacks and dirt roads. Here, the metal shacks have been upgraded to brick, but most of them are just one room. The roads are still dirt tracks The population is young with 60% being under 30. When a man finds a woman he wants to marry he has to pay a dowry. He then has to approach the village leaders and buy a plot of land. He can then build whatever he wants on the land. The plots of land are small and getting smaller as there is less and less space available. There is no planning permission whatsoever which is evident by the hodge podge of buildings, all different shapes and sizes and often very close to their neighbour. They build the houses themselves using breeze blocks and cheap windows. They build one room first and then add another as they can afford it. Most can never afford it and so they stay living in one room.

Just like the slums of Mumbai, they have no running water, and no sewers. But the inhabitants here know nothing of the Mumbai slums and it would give them no satisfaction to know that their tiny plot of earth around their house (which they do not use), their outhouse (which they do) and their central well for fresh clean water would be considered a big step up for some.

As we drive through these townships on the way to our luxury safari lodge I can’t help but think about how our future is affected by the place we were born.

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One Response to South Africa and the tragedy of AIDS

  1. Colette says:

    In Botswana in 2002, the stat was 40% of people had AIDS – this was driven home when, at the end of our safari, saying good-bye to the lined-up local support staff, we realized that were we to come back again in 2 years or so, 2 of those 5 people we had enjoyed so much would no longer be there

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