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Masculinities, multiple-sexual-partners, and AIDS: the making and unmaking of Isoka in KwaZulu-Natal

From: Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa
54, 2004
pp. 123-153 | 10.1353/trn.2004.0019

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Masculinities, multiple-sexual-partners, and AIDS:
the making and unmaking of Isoka in KwaZulu-Natal

Courting behaviour among traditional young men is a very important part of their education; for a young man must achieve the distinction of being an isoka, ie a Don Juan or a Casanova.

(Vilakazi, A Zulu Transformations 1962:47)

There are no longer amasoka (pl.isoka); people are scared to die of AIDS.

(Sipho, 20 year old male, Sundumbili Township, 2001)

This paper examines one dominant element of masculinities worldwide - the high value placed on men's 'success' with women. In southern Africa, where HIV infection rates are typically 1 in 4, sexual networks characterised by multiple concurrent sexual partners are said to be prominent agents driving the AIDS pandemic (for instance HSRC 2002). As this paper shows, masculinities that celebrate multiple sexual conquests are meeting with forceful opposition in African communities, those the worst hit by the AIDS pandemic and the subject of this paper. Examining these trends, researchers have tended to dwell mainly on the present day, perhaps hardly surprising given the rapid onset of the pandemic. Notwithstanding the many rich resultant commentaries, this inclination to see AIDS through contemporary sources can, without care, suggest a certain rigidity, even innateness, to African sexuality. That the media is so quick in seizing upon stories of multiple-partners, sex for money, and sugar daddies makes it imperative to challenge any static representations of 'promiscuous' African sexuality. This is especially important of late because, although government's suspicion of mainstream HIV/AIDS views has many antecedents, such images provide a context for President Mbeki and other critics to downplay the significance of sexuality to AIDS and to portray [End Page 123] studies of African sexuality as being intrinsically racist. Thus, instead of surveying the links between poverty, sexuality, and HIV infection, some in government look no further than 'nutrition' or similar phenomenon to explain the interconnections between African's economic hardship and AIDS.2

A major exception to this contemporary focus has arisen from the work of social historians, many contributions clustered around the 2001 'Aids in Context' conference at the University of Witwatersrand (see the special editions of South African Historical Journal, November 2001, and African Studies, July 2002). These studies have questioned the uniqueness of the contemporary AIDS pandemic and shown the many precedents for the social turmoil occasioned by the collapse of apartheid. Mining and migrancy labour, in particular, institutionalised multiple-partners over a century ago as evidenced by the long history of syphilis infection in urban and rural areas of South Africa. This article builds on these themes but tries to chart a path, however fraught, between stressing the historical precedents for, and the uniqueness of, the AIDS pandemic. A tentative periodisation is attempted whereby, reviewing changes to masculinities over the last century, persistent unemployment coupled with continued agrarian collapse is argued to have set the conditions for the substantial reworking of masculinities and sexual practices over the last two decades (I also believe that sex and money have become interlinked in important new ways over the last two decades, the subject of a future paper). What is unique about the current young generation of men, I would argue, is that they are experiencing a simultaneous collapse of agrarian and wage livelihoods: while, as oral testimonies show, men in the 50s were often precariously caught between an eroding rural economy and an apartheid structured labour market, most eventually secured marriage and umnumzana (head of household) status through work, a path foreclosed to many in the current economic climate.

Rooted in the social changes induced by colonialism, migrant labour, and apartheid, the AIDS pandemic then is exacerbated by contemporary unemployment and economic hardship.3 Tight government spending in a climate of austerity has been widely shown to have detrimental health repercussions in southern Africa, including affecting HIV infection (for an excellent political economy perspective on health and HIV, see Basu 2003). This article does not explore further the underlying racialised political economy of South African health; instead the seemingly extraneous topic of masculinities will be used to demonstrate the intimate and contingent [End Page 124] relations between political economy, sexuality...