All That Glitters: How HIV Caught Fire In South Africa

Part One: Sex And The Migrant Miner

This migrant labor system, which at its height employed more than three-quarters of a million people from as far north as Tanzania, laid the groundwork not only for apartheid but also for other ills, literally. More than half a century ago, scientists documented that the migrant labor on the gold mines, with its signature single-sex hostels, bred epidemics of syphilis, gonorrhea, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Now, Lurie has found that migrant workers and their partners are about twice as likely to be infected with HIV as nonmigrant couples.

Not all these migrants are miners. But according to 1996 data, only the government houses more people than the mining industry; more than 235,000 people work in the gold mines alone. And because of the vast wealth generated by gold, other minerals, and diamonds, the mining industry played a lead role in shaping the racial policies that forced blacks to migrate for jobs in many industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, and even the service sector. The gold mines, then, simply epitomize South Africa's migrant labor system and the way it amplifies HIV.

Of course, no single factor can cause an epidemic as huge as AIDS in southeastern Africa, where in some countries more than a quarter of the adult population between the ages of 15 and 49 is infected with HIV. Poverty, poor health care, illiteracy, and female powerlessness mark the region. Other sexually transmitted diseases, which make it much easier both to transmit and contract HIV, are rampant.

Pointing to such cofactors, the mining industry downplays the effect of the migrant labor system on the spread of the virus. "Personally I would say migrancy is not one of the major factors," says Dr. Peet Rautenbach, a health advisor with the Chamber of Mines, the leading industry association. "More important is the country's transport infrastructure," which is indeed highly developed in South Africa. "But," counters Laurie, "the transportation system would be irrelevant if people were able to work in their home towns or bring their families to live with them."

South Africa's epidemic has grown "explosively, and it doesn't seem to be hitting a plateau," adds Salim Abdool Karim, one of the country's leading AIDS researchers. "That suggests some engine driving our epidemic that's different from elsewhere. It's not just poverty and commercial sex," which are found throughout the continent. "Migration," he says, "is one of the key explanations." Indeed, by scattering the virus far and wide, migrant labor can make an epidemic grow extremely quickly. And because migration corrodes families and social cohesion, leading to increased numbers of sexual partners, it sustains the very epidemic it helped inflame.

Seven hundred meters below the surface of the earth, and descending deeper on wooden steps, one hears a mechanized roar grow louder and louder. Around a corner, it becomes literally deafening, and the source of the noise slowly grows visible in a gloom so thick it makes the whole scene look underwater. Four pairs of men are driving tungsten-tipped hydraulic drills into the dark rock, boring narrow tubes that will hold sausages of orange-sheathed explosives.

Mining manager Alton Taylor calls this, West Driefontein's Shaft 7, "a Rolls Royce setup." But while the shaft is indeed one of the country's newest and most modern, the basic work of mining is the same here as in any gold mine in the country—"really tough," as driller Tshetlho Lebotse tersely puts it.

It's hot underground, up to 90 degrees. The driller's whole body shakes with the vibration of the drill, yet to avoid injury—and to make his per-hole bonus—his concentration must not flag. The drills are so loud that even shouting directly into someone's ear is futile, so despite earplugs, everyone worries about hearing loss.

And, of course, there is the ever-looming danger of a "rock fall," an underground avalanche. The Chamber of Mines only records injuries that force a miner to miss 14 days or more of work. Each year, about two percent of miners suffer such injuries; in 1997, the last year for which statistics are available, more than 5700 miners were injured, of which 279 died.

Such danger undermines efforts to convince miners to wear condoms, says Sy Elhadj, who heads the southern and eastern Africa team for the United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS). "If you work hundreds of meters underground, where every day you risk having a big stone fall on your head," he explains, "then you will have a completely different perception of the risk of a virus that you can't see and that will live in your body for 10 years before you become sick." Indeed, studies conducted by Brian Williams of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research show that many Carletonville miners don't wear condoms or even perceive themselves as in danger of becoming infected.

Stress, danger, loneliness, lack of privacy in the hostels: all these contribute to the need to blow off steam at Carletonville bars like Marcello's. Some miners—such as quiet, serious Daniel Solo, who during the day helps lay explosives underground—say they come to this bustling bar just for the beer and the camaraderie and the soccer showing on the television. Yes, Solo says, sometimes one of the women in the back will come over, rub her leg against his, and say that she's selling a good time. But, says Solo, who sees his girlfriend for three days every month, "I just tell her I'm not that kind of guy."

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