Steven Robins's work can be read as an effort to identify the nature of South African black society since 1994, with emphasis on grassroots "identity politics" (viii). The book is in fact a compilation of essays published earlier in various journals and books and then revised and updated for the present publication. Thus, while chapters 2 and 3 focus respectively on Khoi/San politics in Namaqualand and the Northern Cape, chapter 4 deals with the South African Homeless People's Federation, including its ties to the Slum Dwellers International. Chapters 5, 6 and 7, which all focus on the issues of AIDS, are much more closely interconnected, and this is probably the most interesting part of the book.
While Robins himself opposes the Mbeki administration's policy of not providing sufficient medical support to combat the AIDS epidemic, he presents considerable material to show that AIDS "denialism" has not been limited to a small minority of uncooperative government bureaucrats and leaders. The Mbeki government was not out of touch with public opinion, but in fact often reflected it, with "scientific authority distrusted both by powerful individuals within the state and by large sections of the public" (105). As the author revealingly points out, "up to 70% of South Africans consult traditional healers" (114).
Robins shows further that the minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, was herself allied with the South African Traditional Healers Organisation in opposing both antiretroviral treatment and the international pharmaceutical industry itself. Besides the pharmaceutical industry, the common enemy of both the government and the THO was the Treatment Action Campaign, established in 1998 under Zackie Achmat. The TAC, in alliance with the famous Geneva-based Médecins sans Frontières, had established the first antiretroviral treatment program in 2001, and at the beginning of his book Robins acknowledges his debt to activists from both organizations for having inspired his research for the three chapters on AIDS. Yet even TAC volunteers themselves often had contradictory allegiances, an ambiguity not usually picked up by the South African media, which portrayed "TAC and [End Page 193] President Mbeki as occupying diametrically opposed positions in a raging battle between scientific truth and irrationality" (101).
Although the Mbeki government eventually ceased to support AIDS denialism, the deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes in African society have continued to provide obstacles to AIDS prevention. Symbolically, at the rape trial of Mbeki's eventual successor, Jacob Zuma, traditional healers and tribal chiefs were present as a sign of support. While Zuma was eventually acquitted, this outcome did not negate the more significant fact that rape in South Africa is widespread and obviously a conduit for AIDS; it has been estimated that "at least one in three South African women will be raped in her lifetime" (149). More fundamentally, dominant patriarchal attitudes, particularly in the rural areas, prevent women from receiving health care, including HIV testing, and health facilities are viewed as challenges to men's traditional rights to control female bodies and minds. As one might expect, and as Robins points out throughout the book, the TAC's volunteers are mostly young unemployed African women, many of them mothers who are HIV-positive.
At the same time, it would be simplistic to see the AIDS controversy mainly as a gender issue, a point that the author does not make sufficiently clear. Thus the reader risks making the facile assumption that if the TAC volunteers are primarily women, then their rivals, the traditional healers, must obviously be men. It would have been helpful if Robins had pointed out that in fact many of them are actually women.
Also the crucial issue of widespread commercialized female sex, itself a vitally important conduit for AIDS, is never mentioned by Robins except in one fleeting sentence (156). This is a most unfortunate omission, considering that the work addresses itself to modern South African identity politics. As Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala has so effectively shown, women are not...