A Woman's Work

How HIV Caught Fire in South Africa: Part Two

 Hlabisa, South Africa— Handsome, soft-spoken Bongani is one of 3.6 million people infected with HIV in South Africa, which has one of the world's fastest-growing AIDS epidemics. As a gold miner working 300 miles from his rural home, he is also part of a vast and entrenched system of migrant labor epit-omized by the country's gold mines, where workers live in all-male barracks called hostels, visit their wives or girlfriends only a few times a year, and so often resort to prostitutes or casual relationships. Sitting in the mining hostel, and speaking on condition that his real name not be used, Bongani says that he told both of his two girlfriends that he's infected, and that one of them stopped seeing him because of the news.

But back home, that's not the tale told by the girlfriend who's still with him, a 19-year-old woman who on her last test was still HIV-negative. Holding their baby, she says Bongani assured her that he is not infected. What the couple agree on is that Bongani suggested they start using condoms— but that he doesn't always stick to his suggestion. "When the urge is too strong," he says, "there's no time to think about condoms."

Bongani personifies the simple notion of how migration fuels the epidemic: lonely men far from home contract the virus and then endanger their partners. That certainly happens. But in preliminary data gathered by Mark Lurie, an AIDS researcher studying migration, a revealing fact has emerged. Among couples where the man is a migrant laborer, are many cases in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is negative. But in fully half of those cases, the positive partner is the woman. "Clearly," says Lurie, "she's not getting the virus from her migrant husband."

Bonisile Ngema's family was plunged into poverty when her son died of AIDS. "We feel like orphans," she says.
Bonisile Ngema's family was plunged into poverty when her son died of AIDS. "We feel like orphans," she says.

In Lurie's focus groups, rural women who are partnered with migrant men frequently complain about what happens when their man gets a "town wife," a steady girlfriend in the place where he works. Taken with his new romance, the man returns to his rural home less frequently and often sends back less money. Back on the homestead, or kraal, the woman grows lonely, and she almost always has children to feed. With unemployment at 37 percent nationwide, and with women profoundly subordinate to men, landing a formal job is usually impossible. Commercial sex as it is usually defined— money handed over for a specific sexual encounter— certainly happens, but often a subtler transaction takes place. The woman gets an ishende, Zulu for a man on the side who brings her food or a little money.

Men, of course, are happy to oblige. Polygamy was part of many African cultures, and, notes Sy Elhadj of the United Nations Joint Programme on Aids (UNAIDS),"When you discuss with people why men are having a number of sexual partners, they say, 'It's our culture.' " But in the traditional polygamy of many southern African cultures, a man was required to pay a lobola for each wife, a kind of dowry that might take years to accumulate. This, as well as close-knit rural communities, limited the number of sexual partners a man could have, and he was expected to take responsibility for all of his wives.

Colonialism didn't simply destroy this system. It forced Africans to live in an increasingly hollow parody of it. South Africa's "homelands" were reservations that purported to allow Africans to continue their traditional cultures. But in fact, the homelands were devised not only to pacify blacks politically but also to coerce large numbers of African men to "choose" to work in white-owned farms and mines. The homelands were small tracts of South Africa's least fertile land, and white rulers, says University of Natal sociologist David Ginsburg, "understood quite clearly that if they took away the best farmland, blacks would be forced to survive on wage labor. It was a brutal system from the outset."

Migrant labor survives in post-apartheid South Africa because it is so deeply entrenched in the economy. And because massive unemployment places lobolas out of reach for millions of men, and because Western television preaches a radically different sexual ethic, polygamy often survives in caricature form in outright prostitution or sugar-daddy relationships that offer women far less stability.

On the urban side of the migration pendulum, black women in Carletonville have an outlook that's not much brighter than their rural counterparts. Many urban women also depend on men for basic subsistence. But city anonymity makes sexual mixing easier, so many town women who are poor, or whose husbands are unemployed, or who see some sex workers making more money than women in formal jobs, seek affairs that include the man bringing them gifts.

The result, says AIDS educator Yodwa Mzaidume, is that miners and permanent residents of the town are "all rotating in one circle." Indeed, Williams has found that fully half the 25-year-old women in Carletonville's black township, Khutsong, are infected with the virus. Overall, 20 to 30 percent of Khutsong adults are HIV-positive. Clearly, migrant labor isn't just scattering the virus. Wherever it forms a significant feature of the economy, whether in towns or in the countryside, it rends the social fabric and opens countless new opportunities for HIV.

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