All That Glitters: How HIV Caught Fire In South Africa

Part One: Sex And The Migrant Miner

Carletonville, South Africa — Nomsa Mogweba got in the truck with her two children and rode along until the driver said she should get out. She didn't hitch another ride because she figured she was far enough away from the powerful member of the family who, she says, had raped her first-born child. As the truck rumbled away, leaving Mogweba and her children standing on an unfamiliar roadside, she had no money and no husband.

She settled in a squatter camp that's a 10-minute walk from the East Driefontein gold mine, which has extracted more than 1.7 million pounds of gold from the earth, a bounty that, if sold at today's prices, would fetch close to $8 billion. Like the other 150 or so women in the squatter camp, Mogweba gets her piece of that fortune by selling herself to the miners. The going rate is 20 rand, about $3.25. Mogweba sometimes turns a john for as little as five rand, or 80 cents.

Women like Mogweba exist everywhere in Africa, caught in the pincers of poverty. But perhaps nowhere on this continent are conditions as favorable to her profession as in South Africa's gold-mining towns. The miners, who migrate from all over southern Africa, are barracked in all-male hostels, in which a dozen or more men share rooms as small as 20-by-20 feet. Most can afford to visit their families no more than one weekend every other month. With such separations from wives and girlfriends commonplace, the sex trade flourishes—and so does HIV. Between 27 and 41 percent of miners around the town of Carle-tonville, where the East Driefontein mine is located, are HIV-positive. So are two-thirds of the women in so-called hot spots like Mogweba's squatter camp.

Recently released statistics show that 22.8 percent of South African women attending prenatal clinics are infected, and in the hardest hit regions, such as the province of KwaZulu-Natal, that proportion exceeds 30 percent. The rate of increase—more than 33 percent over the previous year—is also terrifying. Indeed, South Africa is considered to have one of the world's fastest-growing HIV epidemics, and the Carletonville area is one of the hardest-hit places in South Africa.

Since it usually takes seven or more years for full-blown AIDS to develop, Carletonville, like all of South Africa, is still at the beginning of its AIDS ordeal. Yet at Gold Fields SA, one of the world's largest mining companies, more than half the deaths in the Carletonville area during the last half of 1998 were AIDS related. And at the regional hospital run by Anglo American, another mining giant, Dr. Danie van Tonder says that deaths in mining hospitals used to occur mainly on the surgery ward, which cared for workers injured on the job. "But there's been a terrible change in the last five years," he says. "In surgery you cure people; on the medical wards you watch them die."

The Carletonville area is a key to understanding how HIV was able to spread so quickly in this country, which, just five years ago—when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president—had alarming but still manageable rates of AIDS. Mark Lurie, a scientist with the country's Medical Research Council who is studying the effect of migration on the spread of the virus, explains how migrant labor has fueled its explosion: "If you wanted to spread a sexually transmitted disease, you'd take thousands of young men away from their families, isolate them in single-sex hostels, and give them easy access to alcohol and commercial sex. Then, to spread the disease around the country, you'd send them home every once in a while to their wives and girlfriends. And that's basically the system we have with the mines."

It is impossible to understand South Africa without understanding its gold mines, which descend as far as five kilometers underground and which have elevated the country's economy above any in Africa. The scale of the industry has literally altered the landscape: The Witswatersrand Basin around Johannesburg—itself a former mining town—is marked by massive, flat-topped hills made of earth that once lay underground, and locals laugh about the frequent earthquakes caused by shifting and settling in the vast hollowed-out labyrinth below. Each ton of Witswatersrand earth yields only a few ounces of gold, which explains not only why so much earth had to be hauled to the surface, but also why the industry imposed a draconian system of migrant labor that, in turn, paved the way for apartheid.

Quite simply, moving so much earth required a lot of workers, and turning a profit required that they be cheap. White workers, imported for their mining skill and experience shortly after gold was discovered in 1886, saw blacks as a threat to their relatively high wages and quickly formed a union which, among other things, forced industry and then government to adopt the Colour Bar, banning blacks from skilled jobs. The good pay secured by whites only intensified pressure to cut the cost of black, unskilled labor. Housing black families would cost money, and letting black workers settle permanently in mining towns would make it easier for them to organize and fight for higher wages. Apartheid's hated pass laws, which restricted the movement of blacks, grew out of mining company policies designed to bring workers—but not their families—to the mines and then force them to go back home.

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