In 2005, as South Africa's government was cautiously revising its restrictive policy on antiretroviral drugs, I set out to write a book exploring how ordinary people would react: whether they would take the medication, or whether the stigma would prevent it. One of my first steps was to review the imaginative and intimate literature on AIDS in South Africa -- and I discovered, to my surprise, that there was almost none. Mounds and mounds of words had been written on AIDS, of course, but there was little creative or personal writing about it. I found this quite shocking. As many as 800 South Africans had been dying of AIDS and 1,000 more contracting the virus every day at least since the late 1990s. Untold numbers of people had lost loved ones, sons and daughters, spouses and siblings. And yet, reading through South African literary offerings, one would not have known that a flood of young deaths was washing through the land. In the West, AIDS memoirs had long ago become a genre in their own right; in South Africa, it was as if the country and its writers had instead decided to change the subject.
Looking back, one can see signs of this silence right at the beginning, long before it was widely recognized that AIDS would reach pandemic proportions. In August 1988, when most South Africans thought of AIDS as a Western problem and black politics was consumed by the fight against apartheid, a group of sociologists presented a draft paper on HIV to a small audience in Johannesburg. Although HIV prevalence in the country was then less than 0.1 percent, the authors wrote, the mining industry was structured in such a way that it could potentially disperse the virus to all four corners of the region. South Africa's quarter-of-a-million migrant mineworkers lived two lives, many with at least two long-term lovers, one at work and the other at home in the countryside.
Shortly after the presentation, Cyril Ramaphosa, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and one of the country's most powerful anti-apartheid figures, called Eddie Webster, director of the institute that had undertaken the research, and asked that the paper be canned, complaining that the research presumed black men to be promiscuous and was thus tinged with racism. As Webster told me recently, the two men haggled. Webster tweaked the report's language. Ramaphosa remained unsatisfied. Eventually, they agreed that the paper could be published -- but not in South Africa.
Six years later, Nelson Mandela made it known that Ramaphosa was his preferred candidate to follow him as South Africa's president. In the end, Mandela was overruled and succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, whose presidency will be remembered above all for his questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS. Yet, as the tetchy exchange between Ramaphosa and Webster suggests, Mbeki was not necessarily the outlier he is often said to be. His dabbling in quack science and AIDS denialism was symptomatic of a great unease in South Africa's political culture, one that has translated into an eerie silence on the page.
What Ramaphosa did when he heard the sociologists' presentation was to read AIDS as an accusation, one leveled by the West at African men. More than a decade later, Mbeki, in a carefully honed speech that is surely the most consequential piece of writing about AIDS in South Africa, made this accusation explicit. "Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world," he told an audience in 2001 at the University of Fort Hare, "they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust."
To this accusation Mbeki added the themes of greed and exploitation. Western governments, he argued, wanted new markets for their giant pharmaceutical manufacturers; there was much profit to be made from the idea that Africa was sick from too much sex and that its population would be saved by antiretroviral treatment. In an unsigned pamphlet released by the African National Congress in the early 2000s -- much of which, Mbeki later revealed to his biographer, he penned himself -- drug manufacturers, referred to as "the Powerful and Conspicuous," are accused of bullying the South African government into feeding its citizens toxic drugs and bribing the country's activists into becoming their "defenders, representatives and sales agents."
As University of Texas scholar Neville Hoad argues in his forthcoming book on the literature of HIV/AIDS, this theme of drugs, money, and exploitation is the subject of the most influential work of fiction to emerge from the pandemic, John le Carré's The Constant Gardener. Its immediate subject is tuberculosis -- a multinational drug company uses Africans as guinea pigs to test a new TB drug -- but it makes clear that it is talking about AIDS too, and it emerges in part from the questions Mbeki raised.
So the agenda set by black South African nationalists has played a role in producing one widely read literature. But it has also inhibited another. That a country newly freed should stare so unhappily over its shoulder, wondering what its former masters might be thinking and scheming, is deeply ironic. It has meant that South Africa was not really permitted to examine its own, private experience of AIDS, for to be black and to write about one's sexuality or one's illness was in many quarters considered an act of betrayal, as if one were delivering ammunition to Western racism.