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

Jonathan James Stadler


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.

gender, South Africa, witchcraft

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