The young, the rich, and the beautiful: Secrecy, suspicion and discourses of AIDS in the South African lowveld

  • Jonathan James Stadler Reproductive Health Research Unit and Department of Anthropology, University of Pretoria, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto, PO Bertsham 2013, South Africa


This article investigates emic accounts of the AIDS deaths that have occurred in a village in the Bushbuckridge district of the South African lowveld. I argue that whilst AIDS was publicly hidden and shrouded in secrecy, private gossip created moral scripts about those suspected of having died of AIDS. Details of 47 AIDS deaths revealed that young women and relatively wealthy, sometimes powerful men were vulnerable to AIDS. I suggest that AIDS constitutes a moral crisis; peoples' sexual secrets and desires for commodities and sex featured prominently in local AIDS discourses. The article explores the similarity between AIDS and witchcraft as a metaphorical analogy. Both were highly secretive, and subjective, and circumstantial evidence identified witches and AIDS victims. AIDS and witchcraft were also concerned with the problem of unnatural and uncontrolled desire. The article explores these themes with regard to men and women's experiences respectively. Young ‘beautiful women' who used sex to acquire wealth were said to ‘buy their own coffins' (die of AIDS), yet relationships with wealthy men ensured household survival. Relatively affluent men were labelled incorrigible ‘womanisers' who spread AIDS. Discourses of masculine sexuality focussed on menlack of agency in sexual decision making. The article points to the tendency to ignore men's vulnerability and its implications for AIDS prevention.

Keywords: Bushbuckridge, gender, South Africa, witchcraft

African Journal of AIDS Research 2003, 2(2): 127–139

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1608-5906
print ISSN: 1727-9445