Mark Hunter’s Love in the Time of AIDS is one of the most important books on AIDS in Africa that has been published so far. Based on intensive and long-term ethnographic research in and around the township of Mandeni, KwaZulu-Natal, the book shows how intimate relations of love, sex, and (infrequently, these days) marriage have been shaped by the history and political economy of the township, situated as it is in the larger contexts of South Africa and the world, and how these relations have shaped, and are shaped by, the HIV/AIDS epidemic which has hit this part of the world so hard.
It is a depressing story.
Mandeni is one of those places dotted across the map of South Africa that confounds an easy distinction between urban and rural. Straddling land that was once part of the “homeland” of KwaZulu, as well as sugarcane farms that were once in Natal, the new Municipality of Mandeni in the Province of KwaZulu-Natal incorporates the geographical and social scars of colonial conquest and apartheid. In 1954 SAPPI (South African Paper and Pulp Industries) built a paper mill on the banks of the Tugela River. Two settlements were built to house mill workers: one for whites, named Mandini (a misspelling of Mandeni, the area’s old Zulu name), and one for blacks, named Sundumbili, which comprised a number of standard apartheid-era four-room brick township houses constructed on a grid pattern. This older established “formal” township was built for, and around, nuclear families, typically headed by a man employed in the nearby SAPPI mill.
In the 1970s and 1980s an “industrial park” named Isithebe was established in the area, stimulated by subsidies designed to encourage industries to relocate to “border areas” so that their workers could remain residents of “homelands” rather than become migrants to cities. At the same time, informal settlements, often comprising barracklike rooms constructed and owned by township residents, were built on the fringes of Sundumbili and Isithebe to house migrants seeking work in Isithebe’s factories. These newer settlers, moving in from more distant rural homesteads, were largely female and employed in the textile and clothing factories, which paid lower wages. They tended to find housing in single-room imijondolo settlements, often as tenants of earlier settlers. They also tended to be more financially independent than the women of the formal townships.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, work opportunities diminished. In the 1990s in particular, clothing factories employing large numbers of women closed, victims of the ANC’s trade liberalization policies. Few opportunities have opened in the postapartheid era for poorly educated rural women, but people continue to move into the area, escaping even worse conditions in the deep rural areas.
Tracing the history of residential settlements in Mandeni, Hunter shows how class divisions in black townships, which began widening in the 1970s and ’80s as the apartheid state’s efforts to prevent urbanization steadily collapsed, have become a chasm in the postapartheid era. Though few residents of the township of Sundumbili or the informal settlements in surrounding areas would claim to be anything other than “poor,” residents of the formal township—who occupy much more comfortable homes, have better access to stable jobs, and are able to send their children to better, although not good, schools—have substantial advantages over others. Such divisions, reflected in a thousand distinctions of style and manner, are found in urban townships throughout the country. This growing socioeconomic inequality is one of the distinctive features of the postapartheid era, yet it remains one of the most difficult to articulate in political or scholarly discourse, given the heritage of racism and apartheid. Class divisions are shaping life chances in a myriad ways, including the chances of contracting HIV and AIDS. Periurban informal settlements, like those in Mandeni, have the highest incidence of HIV infection in South Africa today...