​#AIDS2016: Yes, Helen Zille racism and inequality do fuel the spread of HIV

Monday evening, 8.53pm.

Western Cape premier  Helen Zille’s Twitter account.

“Most ppl [people] in SA know how HIV is transmitted and how to avoid it. Why don’t ppl act on this knowledge? Cld [could] Dbn [Durban] Aids conference address this?”

It’s shortly after South African born Hollywood actress Charlize Theron said in her  speech at the opening of the  21st International Aids Conference in Durban that: “HIV isn’t just transmitted by sex — it’s transmitted by sexism and racism, poverty and homophobia.”

The next day, at 11.38am, Zille has the following message for Theron on Twitter: “Dear Charlize, Answer to your question: we failed to beat Aids because we failed to translate scientific knowledge into behaviour change.”


The tweet is retweeted 64 times and gets 150 likes, including from conservative Afrikaans-language activist Dan Roodt. He responds: “She also implies white racism caused HIV. Let her stay in Hollywood, a cog in the antiwhite propaganda machine!”

“How does racism transmit HIV”? another user asks. “Good question,” Zille responds. “I think inversely, by implying that certain categories of people are incapable of agency and choice.”

When a prominent political leader with close to a million Twitter followers is judgmental and ignorant on social media, it has a devastating effect. It fuels HIV-related stigma and helps spread the virus because it encourages people to ignore the reality in which we live.

It’s unacceptable for a high-level leader not to know that, in South Africa, inequality limits the “agency and choice” of “certain categories of people”.

The Human Sciences Research Council’s  latest household survey shows that almost one in 10 South African women is infected with HIV by the time they turn 24. Most of them are black. Why? It’s not just biology. And it has little to do with choice.

“Scientific knowledge”, in the form of peer-reviewed research, shows that limited access to quality education — and the  consequent poverty that women without job opportunities or employable skills live in — plays a crucial role in making them vulnerable to HIV infection.

In this country, only one in seven white males are unemployed or studying, but for black women this figure is nearly one in two, according to 2014 Statistics South Africa data.

Stats SA reports that in 2011, close to 15% of black women had no formal schooling. Less than 1% of white women and men have no schooling.

A 2015 study published in The Lancet showed that just one additional year of high school decreases a girl’s chances of contracting HIV by about a third because, among other things, it delays her sexual debut and gives her more skills.

Research links poverty with relationships in which women have little negotiating power for condom use. We know condoms protect against HIV, but poorer women often end up in relationships in which they depend on men for money. It gives them little control over who those men have sex with or, more importantly, what type of sex they themselves have with their partners. That lack of “agency” spreads HIV.

The link to “white racism”? Well, “white racism”, which defined the apartheid era, led to black people being deprived of education and job opportunities. That made them poor. This imbalance will take decades to correct.

Most of us know that. You would think that the head of a province would know this too.

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Mia Malan
Mia Malan
Mia Malan is the founding director and editor of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism at the Mail & Guardian. She heads up a team of fifteen permanent and freelance staff members. She loves drama, good wine and strong coffee, not necessarily in that order.

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