On political leadership and anthropology: AIDS in South Africa

By | April 27, 2010

Keith Hart writes:

The contrast between Zuma and Mbeki could hardly be greater, a tribal chieftain in the mould of Bolingbroke or Henry Tudor against Mbeki’s Othello, a man happy to be photographed dancing in Zulu warrior gear versus the austere western intellectual with his stiff suits and goatee beard. The number of Zuma’s wives, lovers and children is uncountable. He was once tried for raping an HIV-positive woman who was the daughter of a trusted political aide; claimed that it was his duty to satisfy any woman who appeared to want him; and took a shower after the act so as not to catch the disease. Jacob Zuma epitomises the image of African male sexuality that Thabo Mbeki tried so desperately to counter. Yet Zuma appointed a leading progressive medic as Minister of Health; and he has pushed through drastic changes in government AIDS policy, winning singular praise from AIDS social movements for having committed state resources to the fight. Only recently Zuma made public his own HIV status (negative after four tests). Political leaders like this make nonsense of the stereotypes that pass for analysis of South Africa’s trajectory.

Now at last many more South Africans have access to the most effective sources of prevention and treatment known to normal science, although this is still highly unequal and plagued by Christian and traditional beliefs affecting the use of condoms, for example. The whole story is mind-boggling. You couldn’t make it up. Because of or despite all this, South Africa has stimulated a number of compelling book-length studies by leading anthropologists which, taken individually and together, offer a remarkable chance to reflect on how our discipline might illuminate a tragedy that has implications for how we all live in today’s world. Here I will briefly consider three: Didier Fassin’s When Bodies Remember (2007), Robert Thornton’s Unimagined Community (2008) and Ida Susser’s AIDS, Sex, and Culture (2009).

Read the whole article, including his review of the three books, here.

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