Aids ravages Soweto

Thirty years after the South African township of Soweto exploded in revolt against the country's apartheid system, a new killer is stalking its youth.

    Zuma showered after having unprotected sex

    Much has changed since June 16, 1976. Apartheid has fallen, and the township has turned into a city attracting tourists who walk the streets around the memorials commemorating the uprising.


    The Orlando Stadium, where the protesters of 1976 gathered, is to host many of the matches for the 2010 football World Cup.


    But Soweto's youth, who once led the revolt and were the chief victims of police bullets now face a different set of challenges and dangers.


    In Soweto's Avalon Cemetery, there are the graves of many of the 450 who died during the 1976 uprising, including that of Tsietsi Mashinini, the rising's key leader.


    His grave stands inscribed with the slogans of the era - Black Power and the revolutionary Pan African Congress.


    Yet, after many years in exile, Mashinini's death in 1990 is attributed by many to the plague that has struck down so many of his fellow Sowetans: Aids.


    "If the population in Soweto is two million and a quarter of that population is under the age of 20, we can say that 300,000-400,000 people under 20 are already HIV positive," says David Harrison, CEO of Lovelife, one of South Africa's national HIV prevention campaigns.


    Deadly menace


    These days, the graveyard is busy again, with traffic congestion at its entrances on Sundays, as one funeral cortege vies for space with another.


    Many anti-Aids activists are
    critical of government inaction

    "We are presently seeing 25,000 deaths per month," Harrison adds, "so to think that figure could reach 40,000 in the next five years is realistic".


    By the end of last year, South Africa had some five and a half million HIV positive citizens. In areas of Soweto, local Aids campaigners say, the rate of infection is around 60%.


    Many here blame the government directly for the extent of the epidemic.


    "It started with the political leaders," says 19-year-old Sowetan Sidney, who is HIV positive.


    "It’s because of the confusion that is made by our government, our president and our [health] minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang."


    Sidney is also a member of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an HIV/Aids awareness organisation that has been condemned by government officials for its anti-establishment views.


    Mixed messages?


    The South African authorities - and those in many neighbouring countries - have also been widely criticised by international HIV/Aids campaigners for giving mixed messages on the epidemic.


    "The reason southern Africa is so affected by Aids is a delay in responding, and the failure of decision-makers to unblock problems," Mark Stirling, director of the Eastern and Southern Africa office of the UN Aids organisation, said recently.


    The mixed messages are often startling. While most HIV/Aids organisations advocate anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) for management of the virus, Tshabalala-Msimang has often advocated some more unconventional remedies.


    She told the press in Cape Town recently that "Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon not only give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from [the] disease".


    Last month, Jacob Zuma, the former deputy president, revealed he had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman, and then taken a shower afterwards as a precaution.


    "And what are we doing to be free? We are facing a new epidemic, a new struggle. They passed those trials and tribulations for us, and we have to remember those people who died for us"


    Vusi Sengwayo,

    Zuma had previously been head of the National Aids Awareness Council. In South Africa, the disease is spread most commonly via unprotected heterosexual sex, with women the main sufferers.


    Yet the government rejects such criticism and says it is putting its might into the HIV/Aids campaign.


    Government effort


    The department of health, Tshabalala-Msimang told Red Cross delegates and reporters back in April, "has increased the budget allocated for support of NGOs involved in the response to Aids… Our comprehensive response to HIV and Aids also covers the areas of prevention, treatment, research and human rights. Prevention of new infections is the mainstay of our response".


    This is a view some anti-Aids campaingers also agree with.


    "The government has been very supportive," says Love Life line manager Rosaline Lesotho at her Soweto clinic. "They have always backed up what we are doing."


    The scale of the problem, however, is daunting, with many myths and taboos to tackle.


    "Some say if you sleep with a virgin, you will be cured," says Brian Ngwenya, a Love Life campaigner . "But mostly you find the youth know all about Aids, the problem is the older people."


    Infection rates jump as soon as kids leave school, with young girls particularly vulnerable.


    "When mothers die from Aids," says Harrison, "the 'uncles' move in."


    The government says its stressing
    on prevention and treatment 

    These are often not real relatives, but older men who can offer some financial security in return for sex.


    "This sets up another cycle of infection, putting child-headed households at greater risk."


    Finding hope


    Sydney agrees. "Money is the problem," he says.


    While South Africa’s national unemployment rate stands at 25%, it soars to 65% for black women.


    "Girls sleep with their boyfriends just for some money," Sydney adds.


    Yet amidst the gloom, there is also some hope.


    Campaigns such as Love Life and TAC have been working hard to try and ensure that a new generation of Sowetans grows up HIV free.


    "We are trying to contribute to a born-free generation," says Harrison. "Those who have grown up out of apartheid and in democracy. A born-free generation which is free of HIV".


    To do this, campaign volunteers from local communities known as "Groundbreakers" are sent out to educate and to listen.


    Mostly teenagers, the Groundbreakers are highly motivated, often having had personal experience of losing friends and relatives to the epidemic.


    "It is the youth who are mostly contracting this disease," says Groundbreaker Marsha Moletsane. "So the youth will be able to talk to other youth - they will listen to us."


    History as ally


    The Groundbreakers are also acutely conscious of the history they carry with them as Sowetans.


    "Young people died for us in that time so that we could be free," says Groundbreaker Vusi Sengwayo, recalling 1976.


    "And what are we doing to be free? We are facing a new epidemic, a new struggle. They passed those trials and tribulations for us, and we have to remember those people who died for us."


    They are not just concerned with the past, however.


    "The youth are trying to take back the future," says Moletsane. "Because we are now seeing that the future is no more. So we are trying to take it back for us, for ourselves."


    However, as the funeral corteges drive slowly through the streets, it sometimes seem that the future is slipping away.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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