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Chazan, May  (2006) Understanding Community Mobilisation around HIV/AIDS in South Africa: A Preliminary Scoping Study. Health Economics and HIV/ AIDS Research Division (HEARD) University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa : 1-41.

Amidst South Africa’s escalating epidemic, its rapid social, economic and political transition, and the changing roles of the state, civil society and international actors, there emerge a multitude of complex and yet unanswered questions. My doctoral research, the larger backdrop for this scoping study, focuses on one such area: little is known about the dynamics of community-level mobilisation, nor about the interface between these groups and national and international bodies. This report investigates, in a preliminary way, one component within this – what is happening within South African ‘communities’ and why?

Social mobilisation is a growing theme among AIDS researchers in southern Africa. Indeed, as we become increasingly weary of attempts to measure and predict ‘impact’ (which could mean anything from macro-economic effects to psychological traumas), and as the promise of technological interventions (such as circumcision, microbicides and vaccines) inevitably begins to wane, some researchers are increasingly shifting their gaze to learn from what those most affected are doing every day to respond to HIV/ AIDS – a shift in focus from formulaic or sequential views of impact to understanding differentiated, creative, and perhaps unpredictable collective responses.

‘Local1’ responses to HIV/ AIDS may shape how the epidemic is experienced by many affected groups. These responses appear to involve people organising within communities around prevention, care, support, training, advocacy and treatment, and they may collectively influence the future impact of AIDS on households, communities and the society more broadly (Birdsall & Kelly 2005). Yet, why and how local mobilisation is taking place, and what effect these efforts are having, is not yet clear.

Aside from substantive scholarly interest in South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), there is currently only a small body of research on other forms of social mobilisation around AIDS (e.g., Campbell et al 2002; Birdsall & Kelly 2005; Teljeur 2002). Existing studies are published predominantly in university-based reports and ‘grey literature’ and have not been systematically compiled, appraised or critically analysed. In addition, while there are existing literatures that could inform the study of community AIDS mobilisation – among these social movement theories – the assumptions embedded within the central and overlapping concepts of ‘local’, ‘community’, ‘civil society’ and ‘mobilisation’ remain under-theorised in the AIDS field.

There is a need for more detailed, nuanced and integrated understandings of how and to what end communities are organising around this new and growing epidemic. The objectives of this scoping study were thus three-fold:

(1) To gain a preliminary understanding of why, how and where community mobilisations are taking place in South Africa, through appraisal of existing research, examination of selected case studies, and building on the experiences of key academics, researchers, activists and community organisers;

(2) To consider community responses to HIV/ AIDS through a lens of social movement theory in order to bring new conceptual tools to research on ‘local’ responses and offer a more theorised understanding of community AIDS mobilisation; and

(3) To offer potential directions (both conceptual and empirical) for future research. 1 This term tends to be used interchangeably with ‘grassroots’, ‘community’, and ‘civil society’ responses in the AIDS field although these concepts have not been fully developed in this literature.

Understanding community mobilisation has been identified as a priority area for HEARD: currently tracking municipal responses in Ethekwini (Durban) Municipality, HEARD has supported work on the role of child welfare organisations in Amajuba District and committed to research in the areas of women’s vulnerabilities, impacts on families, AIDS governance and civil society responses. This study falls within HEARD’s programmatic focus on ‘vulnerability’, which subsumes a number of projects in the areas of Democracy and Governance, Orphans and Vulnerable Children, and Environment and Food Security. It also aimed to build and strengthen relationships between HEARD and other AIDS actors in South Africa, and to provide collaborative opportunities for HEARD staff.

This report is intended as a working document, primarily to extend the conceptual context in which community responses are framed, as well as to share preliminary findings and gauge feedback from key academics and activists working in this field. It begins with an examination of the conceptual terrain: how community mobilisation has so far been understood and how a broader engagement with social movement theories might add to this discussion. It then profiles the stories and voices of participants involved in eight community initiatives, summarising these to examine what activities are being undertaken, who is involved, why mobilisation is taking place, and how and where it is happening. Finally, the report revisits current conceptualisations of community mobilisation in light of the empirical research and offers directions for future research.

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