restricted access AIDS, Politics, and Music in South Africa by Fraser Mcneill (review)
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Reviewed by
Fraser Mcneill, AIDS, Politics, and Music in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the International African Institute (hb $90 – 978 1 10700 991 2). 2011, 306 pp.

Picture an anthropologist: a young, Scottish (a.k.a. ‘white’), dreadlocked Rastafarian reggae guitarist graduate student. Male. Late at night, a decade or so after apartheid was vanquished, he is in a crowded hut, in the African night, his video camera confounded by the glow of the fire, surrounded by naked teenaged Venda girls, witnessing something remarkable. The girls, as part of their initiation ritual – which the anthropologist has been accorded the privilege of observing by virtue of his close connection with the Venda king and the woman who runs the initiation school – have been enjoined to hurl the most abusive insults they can think of at each other. It’s part of the training.

The girls, at first, are a little shy about speaking rudely in the presence of older women, many of whom are elder relatives of the initiates. These same elders, custodians of the wisdom of womanhood, have for the past days, and long into this night, been instilling in the girls the knowledge they will need as they embark on this new phase of their lives now they have qualified to be wives and mothers.

The shyness does not last long. Soon the girls start swinging insults with gay abandon, improvising songs of witches and murder and a girl fucked by a bull – plus another whom they say wants to fuck the anthropologist and relocate to Scotland. The elders, nicely pickled in the local brew they’ve been quaffing all evening, laugh and encourage the bawdiness. The anthropologist takes his notes.

Encouraged by the elders’ licence, one of the initiates, a daughter of the woman running the whole show, suddenly improvises a song castigating someone known to all, though unnamed in the song, as a promiscuous ‘gossip’ who has infected herself with AIDS and will soon die. At that, her mother lays into her with a stick and whacks her about the head and thighs. The other girls are slow to appreciate what is happening, so continue with the theme. Worse. Having heard the word ‘AIDS’ they reflexively launch into another song on the subject, this time extolling a version of the AIDS-awareness ‘messaging’ they have been exposed to since before birth: ‘We must not eat (have sex) like that / There is no cure . . . we must condomize! Use condoms!’

Now, the spontaneous injecting of talk about AIDS and condoms into an event centred on the transmission of rules of female sexual behaviour and principles of sexual health is exactly the sort of thing that the emissaries of the international AIDS industry have been advocating for decades, despite the fact that the girls in that initiation hut were talking of AIDS and condoms by way of insulting each other – not exactly what the AIDS-awareness people usually have in mind when they advocate ‘cultural relevance’. When the girls started singing of condoms in the initiation hut that night while Fraser McNeill was observing, however, pandemonium broke loose. Hurling abuse, the older women beat the initiates with sticks and the ritual came to a hasty and indecorous end.

In his superb book AIDS, Politics, and Music McNeill demonstrates, time and again, how ham-fisted the efforts of the AIDS-awareness industry to harness [End Page 349] ‘culture’ in the service of HIV-prevention usually are. On the basis of some fifteen years’ connection with the people of whom he writes, McNeill also demonstrates how important ethnography is in understanding how people are making sense of the HIV epidemic and shaping their lives, and deaths, in its wake. In this, McNeill’s book joins Mark Hunter’s Love in the Time of AIDS in providing a detailed, nuanced, picture of the complexities of life under the shadow of AIDS.

In recounting the episode of the riot in the circumcision school, McNeill shows how the girls that night were bringing a new form of knowledge, derived from what we know as ‘biomedical science’, backed by an alien authority, into a place where it had no business. The...