loveLife campaign not just billboarding

A new book detailing the first decade of the loveLife initiative takes a look behind the provocative billboards that first called on South African youth to “talk about it”.

Beyond the Billboards - the loveLife Story details the challenges and successes of the first 10 years of the national HIV prevention programme that set itself the ambitious task of cutting the spread of HIV among 12- to 17-year-olds by 50% in five years.

The organisation’s other key goal was more diaphanous: to improve their self-esteem. The latter goal, at least, is particularly hard to measure.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which awareness programmes have had the biggest effect, it has become clear that South African teenagers are changing their behaviour.

Recent surveys have shown that teenagers are more likely to use a condom than any other age group in the country and the rate of new HIV infection in this age group is on the decline. For those outside the age range and social context of loveLife’s target group, the campaign could be baffling.

Author David Robbins’s book goes a long way to explaining the rationale behind the marketing campaign. It also takes a deeper look at the structures loveLife put in place to help youths connect with services on the ground and it examines the controversy that dogged the programme.

With an operating budget of more than R180-million a year, there was bound to be criticism of the organisation, its methods and its efficacy. loveLife took a further hit in 2005, when the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria cut funding for the programme.

Perhaps more damaging than the loss of the $60-million over three years loveLife would have received from the organisation was the loss of credibility that came with it. But, says Robbins, loveLife is slowly starting to rebuild that credibility.

Robbins, who worked closely with participants in loveLife over the years, says he slowly came to realise why the programme was so controversial. “It cut across all conventional ideas of how to conduct public health programmes,” he says.

“Often the criticism was misguided and often it didn’t go beyond the billboards. “I thought it was important to document this — organisation that has changed the fate of many people in this country.

“Is the book a critical examination of loveLife? Probably not . Is the book a journal, 10 years old? Yes. Is the book a detailed history? Probably not.

What the book does achieve is a feel and a sense of emotional contact with an organisation
that, against impossible odds, dealt with one of the biggest public health crises the world has ever known,” he says.

Robbins maintains that loveLife’s strength lies beyond the marketing messages on urban billboards and rural water tanks. It’s greatest asset, he says, is the 1 200 peer counsellors the organisation recruits each year.

These socalled “groundBreakers” operate at the coalface, bringing frank talk to youth at schools, clinics, sports fields and centres around the country. It is also they who, arguably, benefit most from the programme.

Former counsellor Lonwabo Jabavu was one such beneficiary. “Given my background, I shouldn’t be standing here,” he said, speaking at the launch of the book. “I joined loveLife in 1999 and it was the beginning of great things.”

Through the programme, Jabavu not only gained life skills, he gained multimedia skills. Today he is a successful freelance cameraman and author.

“I know many of my peers who went through the same process and now have totally different lives. The values and the skills loveLife gave me helped throughout my life — I am very, very grateful,” he said.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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