Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Infected Condoms and Pin-Pricked Oranges: An Ethnographic Study of AIDS Legends in Two Townships in Cape Town

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

Infected Condoms and Pin-Pricked Oranges: An Ethnographic Study of AIDS Legends in Two Townships in Cape Town

Article excerpt


With nearly six million cases of reported HIV infections (UNAIDS 2010), South Africa has the highest number of HIV-infected persons in the world. The majority of those infected are black South Africans. Besides the high infection rate, the South African HIV/AIDS situation has gained attention due to perceptions of the disease that clearly deviate from what Western medicine would consider scientifically proven. The media and previous research have called these perceptions AIDS beliefs or AIDS myths. Earlier academic studies have given rather far-reaching interpretations of the reasons behind these AIDS myths (Parikh and Whiteside 2007; Leclerc-Madlala 2002; Niehaus 2005; Stadler 2003; Nattrass 2012). However, no one to date has thoroughly discussed what these myths or beliefs encompass; as a result, the terms "AIDS myths" and "AIDS beliefs" are rather inaccurate. Rather, my observations made during ethnographic fieldwork among the Xhosa people in Cape Town suggest that the HIV/AIDS related discourse referred to as "AIDS myths" or "AIDS beliefs" has some striking similarities with the narrative genre of legends. (1)


During the first years of the twenty-first century, reports of the so-called AIDS myths started to spread from South Africa, first through the media, and later in academic writing. The most noteworthy and disturbing of these was the one claiming that sexual intercourse with a child would cure the disease--the virgin cure myth--which is also assumed to have increased the number of child rapes in South Africa (Pitcher and Bowley 2002). Other reports mentioned conspiratorial thinking and traits related to traditional mythology (Leclerc-Madlala 2002; Niehaus 2005; Stadler 2003). These reports became even more interesting when they were accompanied by ambiguous statements made by leading South African politicians. For example, South Africa's former president, Thabo Mbeki, questioned the causality between HIV and AIDS in 2000, insinuating that the disease was part of a conspiracy to increase drug sales (Iliffe 2006, 146-147). In 2006, the health minister at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, claimed that beetroot and garlic should be considered as treatments for HIV (Baleta 2006, 620). The current president, Jacob Zuma, caused a stir when he, during a rape trial in 2006, said that he had showered after sex with an HIV positive woman, suggesting that this act had reduced his risk of becoming infected (BBC 2006).

Having examined the South African AIDS policy and its consequences, Parikh and Whiteside regard the political debate about the disease as confusing, suggesting that many people have found comfort in them and that the dubious political statements have had "negative implications for behavior change, prevention, treatment uptake, and efforts aimed at reducing stigma" (2007, 67). Pitcher and Bowley believe that the failure of the South African political leadership to acknowledge the causes, effects, and treatment of the disease has offered fertile ground for "bizarre and dangerous myths to take root and flourish" (2002, 274-275). Although Robins acknowledges that cultural interpretations of the disease are complex, he believes President Mbeki's unconventional view on AIDS, and the government's unscientific views caused profound confusion and uncertainty and possibly made popular forms of AIDS denial and alternative explanations credible (2004). The news media have also discussed the relationship between public statements and "myths"; the view presented has often been congruent with the one above (Bevan 2006; Swarns 2000). Interestingly enough, none of these studies has actually discussed the very material and texture of these "bizarre and dangerous myths" or "alternative explanations."

Many of the previous studies also draw a rather clear line of causation between ambiguous political statements about the disease and the existence of what have been called AIDS myths. …

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