loveLife's solo MO

Picture yourself as an HIV-positive teenager who logs on to the loveLife website for advice. Firstly, you would find the devastating (and untrue) information that after 10 years of anti-retroviral treatment “you will eventually die from Aids-related causes or the side effects of the drugs”.

Secondly, you would be confronted by a strong inference that you became infected because you personally made the wrong choices—or worse: according to loveLife, most teenage girls with HIV get it “from having sexual intercourse with sugar daddies”. You would find no information on treatments or on how long you could expect to live without symptoms.

loveLife is South Africa’s best-funded programme for HIV education.
It gets about R25million a year from the state, but its total budget is almost R200million, mostly from the Kaiser Foundation and the Global Fund.

loveLife aims to help prevent HIV among teenagers. Initially, it focused heavily on commercial advertising. But since 2004, after a study showed media had virtually no impact on behaviour, it has placed more emphasis on face-to-face programmes—mostly through clinics and youth centres.

But the problems with loveLife go deeper than its communication strategy. It seems happy to work in isolation, with little collaboration between itself and community organisations or public servants. According to loveLife’s optimistic estimate, it reaches 400 000 young people a year through its centres—out of a teenage population of about 10million—and trains 2 000 teachers a year, out of 350 000 in the public education system.

The narrow focus on prevention is also problematic, as shown by the gaps around stigma and treatment on its website. And loveLife is not consistent about prevention. Its clinics and youth centres prescribe injectable contraceptives on a mass scale, which hardly seems to support safer sex. loveLife says it promotes the simultaneous use of condoms, but other researchers say half the young people injected with the contraceptive Depo Provera or an equivalent ignore the message.

Finally, defining the audience solely as teenagers means it cannot encourage mobilisation to deal with the social factors behind HIV, which include economic deprivation, migrant labour, gender oppression and the underfunded health system.

Instead, loveLife ends up emphasising individual choices as the main problem. The organisation believes it should get “young South Africans hooked on the idea of ‘loveLifestyle’ as the new popular culture”. Ultimately, that seems to mean a caricature of American values, with “information and individuality as the new cool [sic] of popular culture”.

In this vein, the website’s extensive section on fashion stresses the need to use proper hair products and have a monthly manicure (although, parents will be pleased to hear, “that doesn’t mean rushing off to an expensive salon. It’s perfectly okay to do a manicure at home.”)

To be fair, loveLife doesn’t entirely ignore social problems: “Structural deficiencies and underdevelopment should be addressed by increasing access to sports and recreational facilities, ensuring access to good health care, and expanding skills development opportunities.”

The faith in individual choice presumably underlies loveLife’s latest media offering—a young white woman, her mouth sewn up with the word “gender” next to the slogan: “Born Free.” No one I’ve asked is quite sure what this means—except, perhaps, that a real woman would stand up to sexism all by herself, without needing collective support. Contrast that to Khomanani’s slogan of “Caring Together”.

Ultimately, the devastating weaknesses in the loveLife campaign reflect its failure to learn from communities and Aids activists. It sets up reference teams of hand-picked individuals, rather than engaging with broader organisations. Its reports are long on advertising speak, but remarkably short on details and budgets.

An effective prevention programme would have to work more consistently through government programmes and civil society organisations, which would require a fundamental shift in mindset at loveLife. And it would have to form part of a holistic strategy to mobilise communities around a common future, rather than encouraging individuals to focus on their self-interest alone.

Neva Makgetla is the coordinator of fiscal, monetary and public sector policy at the Congress of South African Trade Unions

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