Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"We Are Made Quiet by This Annihilation": Historicizing Concepts of Bodily Pollution and Dangerous Sexuality in South Africa

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"We Are Made Quiet by This Annihilation": Historicizing Concepts of Bodily Pollution and Dangerous Sexuality in South Africa

Article excerpt


Whenever I tried to visualize you, Death, . . .

I thought I saw you lurking in the darkness, . . .

Then you appeared, and families were scattered

And many alas, were lost to us forever! . . .

Again I cry, alas! For have I not seen

The children of Sihlonono

Dying in their prime?

Have I not watched, behind a screen of shrubs,

The daughters of our scattered tribes

Abandon the struggle to keep their maidenhood

And quench the lust of youths who were their kindred.

-Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (1935)1

It has become a sad truism that black youths comprise one of the most vulnerable "risk groups" in South Africa. Their rising rate of HIV infection is ascribed, in part, to chronic unemployment, which afflicts post-apartheid society and frustrates their "pursuit of modernity." In this milieu transactional sex becomes a vital source of income and commodities.2 Such quests, in turn, stoke rumors that fertile women with multiple partners spread fatal bodily pollution, umnyama, in provinces hit hard by AIDS like KwaZulu-Natal. This charge of promiscuity embodies a prominent concept in Zulu cosmology-dread of misfortune that can be transferred through intimacy. It also evokes a colonial idea that African sexuality is debased and menacing. The latter accusation triggers conspiracy theories that blame whites for hatching AIDS.3 Some observers of the pandemic have asserted that these attributions reflect novel responses to a scourge defying local explanation.4 B. W. Vilakazi's 193S poem, mourning those "dying in their prime" and "the lust of youths," begins to tell a different story.

A revered Zulu intellectual, Vilakazi grew up in colonial Natal learning the dramaturgies of "Africa of old." A decade before his birth in 1906, his parents lived through the rinderpest epizootic. By 1897, this virulent virus had left the "veil strewn in carcasses and the cattle kraals emptied of every ox, cow, or calf their owner possessed."5 Four decades later, Vilakazi compiled a comprehensive lexicon for a massive Zulu-English dictionary. The term for death, ukufa, precedes definitions alluding to epidemic, indecent appetite, diseased cattle, and "one vicious person [who] will infect a whole community." One key noun for rinderpest explains how livestock perished "like flies," an apocalyptic vision summarized in ukufa idiom, zabulawa ngukufa iathi qimu: 'They were destroyed by epidemic, collapsing everywhere."6 Vilakazi's etymologies confirm that words describing catastrophic death had already been enfolded into the Zulu language.

The similarities between AIDS and rinderpest extend beyond linguistics. Both outbreaks progressed from localized epidemics to transcontinental pandemics, generating alarm within the Western medical establishment.7 They also highlighted the unrelenting social and physical stresses on African families and attendant restlessness of their youths. The epizootic first infiltrated the Horn in the 1880s after invading Italian forces shipped rinderpest-infected cattle from India (where the virus was endemic) to Somalia.8 Rinderpest then advanced inexorably to South Africa by 18%. Along the way, it eradicated entire herds, destroying the bridewealth cattle (known in Zulu as ilobolo) that upheld traditional African customs regulating fertility. In the absence of ilobolo, which sealed nuptial negotiations sanctioning reproduction, Zulu-speaking youths at the turn of the twentieth century increasingly engaged in premarital intercourse, accelerating a trend that gained momentum with mounting labor migrancy. Such transgressions worried elders who tried to safeguard sexual norms and buoy their sinking world of domestic patriarchy. After the British conquest of Zululand in 1879, white authorities imposed heavier taxes on homesteads and appropriated more land from chiefdoms. Shrinking "native reserves" yielded fewer crops, which propelled youths to seek wages in the colonial economy. …

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