Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa

Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa

Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa

Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa


In some parts of South Africa, more than one in three people are HIV positive. Love in the Time of AIDS explores transformations in notions of gender and intimacy to try to understand the roots of this virulent epidemic. By living in an informal settlement and collecting love letters, cell phone text messages, oral histories, and archival materials, Mark Hunter details the everyday social inequalities that have resulted in untimely deaths. Hunter shows how first apartheid and then chronic unemployment have become entangled with ideas about femininity, masculinity, love, and sex and have created an economy of exchange that perpetuates the transmission of HIV/AIDS. This sobering ethnography challenges conventional understandings of HIV/AIDS in South Africa.


In 2006, Jacob Zuma, then sixty-four and South Africa’s former deputy president, was accused of rape. Zuma, who had entered anti-apartheid politics after growing up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, faced charges from a woman he had known for some time—her father was a fellow member of the African National Congress before his death. “Khwezi” (Star), as she was called by her supporters, was only half Zuma’s age and an HIV-positive AIDS activist.

The trial—in the words of one newspaper headline, “23 Days That Shook Our World”—appeared to crystallize fundamental gulfs in South Africa’s young democracy. Outside the court, and watched by the hungry media, some of Zuma’s supporters burnt photographs of Khwezi and yelled, “Burn the bitch!” Inside the courtroom, Zuma controversially drew on Zulu customs to claim that he could acquire sex relatively easily and was therefore no rapist: “Angisona isishimane mina,” he stated (I don’t struggle to attract women/I am not a sissy). He also argued that in Zulu culture a man who left a woman sexually aroused could himself be charged with rape. Zuma’s defense, in other words, was that he was no rapist, just a traditional patriarch with a large sexual appetite.

Separated by police from Zuma’s supporters, gender activists shouted strong support for Khwezi. They argued that prominent politicians should be upholding, not undermining, the post-apartheid constitution’s commitment to gender rights. The international and national press generally agreed: the South African Mail & Guardian, for instance, described Zuma’s statements as “Neanderthal.” The trial’s importance, commentators noted, was paramount in a country that was purportedly the rape and AIDS capital of the globe.

Yet, despite this controversy, Zuma’s political career went from strength to strength after his acquittal. Three years later, and following a bitter leadership battle within the ruling ANC party, a popular “Zunami” led to his election as president with 66 percent of the vote. How did a self-proclaimed sexist, a man charged with rape (and later corruption), become so popular in a country that overthrew the most oppressive, the most rights-denying, the most illiberal, system of racial rule—apartheid?

Zuma’s story came to intrigue me in part because he frequently made assertions about the naturalness of Zulu patriarchy that my research tried to . . .

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