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Meth, Oliver  (2008) So when do we get serious about HIV/Aids? . Eye on Civil Society : -.

What is it going to take for South Africa to get serious about this scourge sweeping our nation-HIV/AIDS? Most of the emphasis in our country seems to be on practicing safe sex-with “Condotainers” pretty much everywhere you can shake a stick at. And we have all read/heard those mildly obscure LoveLife commercials on billboards, TV or radio.

But one only has to look at the rising number of pregnant teenage girls and infected persons in our schools to wonder where it all went wrong. And like almost everything, it starts at the top.

How are people supposed to trust condoms again after the August 2007 debacle? It resulted in thousands of defective condoms knowingly being placed in the hands of ignorant, trusting consumers - that is years of work, years of trying to install the faith of the government in the peoples best interests- all crushed in one fell swoop.

Religious institutions such as the various churches, are also letting South Africans down. Take the Catholic Church, for example, which is an often outspoken member of society when it comes to ‘sins’ like homosexuality and abortion. But like scratched records, all the Church seems to be saying, is marriage, marriage, marriage or abstain, abstain, abstain. This sentiment was reinforced by the Pope recently, who bemoaned Africa’s poor gender equality to be a result of the disintegration of morals and marriage in African society. Noting of course, the irony that gender-based violence is commonly the experience of most married South African women!

There are so many unemployed people in South Africa struggling to feed families, including many people also facing the challenge of living with HIV. One wonders how food gardens can help improve the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Yet our political leaders continue to advocate messages about nutrition and food gardens as a replacement for the medical treatment of HIV. Intelligent clear answers must come from the ultimate accounting officer, the health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, known to beat the prevention drum whenever she is reminded that 866 000 South Africans are waiting on treatment.

Abstinence-only education does not work. The United States bears this out. A Reuter’s article recently revealed that abstinence-only education programs meant to teach children to avoid sex until marriage failed to control their sexual behaviour, according to a US government report. Bear in mind that the report alleges that the US federal government has spent 87.5 million annually since 1998 for abstinence-only education programs, enthusiastically supported by religious fundamentalist George W Bush. This is money that could conceivably have been pumped into sexual health clinics and awareness.

The standard packages of prevention efforts – if expanded and applied intensively enough – possibly can reduce the spread of HIV. But it will prove inadequate for reversing an epidemic of the scale and ferocity that we are experiencing in South Africa.

It is also important to add the impact of treatment to the mix which could be a double-edged sword both making people complacent about HIV infection and also encouraging an end to denial which could mean more people talking about HIV and therefore are not trying to pretend that it’s “sex as usual”.

While the immediate spread of HIV relates to behaviors such as unprotected sexual intercourse, multiple sexual partners and some biological factors such as STIs, the fundamental drivers of this epidemic in South Africa are the more deep-rooted institutional problems of poverty, underdevelopment and the low status of women, including gender-based violence, in society.

As for the loveLife Ad campaign, a snap survey conducted amongst my friends showed that everyone remembered the words “Love to be there” - and not much else. These are serious issues affecting us all that are not being addressed. Levels of gender based violence are frighteningly high in South Africa. Rape survivors are branded as whores. Women and men who disclose their status are murdered. Violence is a fact of life for us.

It is time to get serious about AIDS. We are the future generation, and we do not need pretty pictures, pithy statements or bland moralising. Times have changed, and the youth need to be equipped with practicalities and facts. Throwing the (Bible) book at them won’t keep them from getting infected. 5FMs ads get it right-giving kids’ opportunities to get tested and know their status, by asking them to get tested and know their status at stations around the country. Knowledge is power, and when you know better, you do better. So we should not be teaching children to “love to be there” - we need to teach them “How to be here”.

Oliver Meth is based at the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu Natal

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