- Love in the Time of AIDS: inequality, gender and rights in South Africa by Mark Hunter
This superb monograph, written by a social geographer, is based on ethnographic fieldwork in Mandeni, in KwaZulu-Natal, which lies at the heart of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. From the vantage point of a shack, Hunter considers how political, economic and geographical transformations have structured experiences of gender and of sexual intimacy. He suggests that the close proximity of rich and poor, rather than poverty per se, has fuelled the pandemic. In a context of grave social inequality, sexual relations have a strong material component, and distribute financial benefits to unmarried women. Hunter subjects local discourses about these matters to rigorous analysis. He shows how men and elders draw on images of ‘tradition’ to strive for respect. Women, on the other hand, invoked liberal notions of ‘rights’ to assert their own interests.
The monograph comprises ten chapters organised into three sections. The first section focuses on colonialism, racial segregation, labour migrancy, and Christianity. Hunter asserts that the destruction of the Zulu kingdom and the advent of migrant labour reformulated social hierarchies. Colonial rule was enacted through male institutions such as chiefship. At the same time migrant earnings enabled young men to challenge the authority of elders; they could now pay their own bridewealth, choose their own marriage partners, and build their own homes. Christian missions provided a new model of romantic love, linked to schooling and to the writing of love letters. Through the churches, women gradually entered the professions of nursing and teaching. In 1964, government constructed the town of Mandini for white employees of the Sappi paper mill and the Sundumbili township [End Page 128] for its lower paid African workforce. Township housing and family planning favoured the emergence of smaller nuclear families, and since housing could only be registered in the name of men, urbanisation affirmed patriarchy. This situation changed during the 1980s, when government established the Isithebe Industrial Park, which employed 23,000 workers as part of its industrial decentralisation programme. Women, employed in low wage garment factories, comprised half the workforce. Consequently a large informal settlement, comprising a myriad of different household types, emerged on the outskirts of the industrial park. Marriage rates drastically declined. Women migrants frequently found marriage to be rigid and undesirable, preferring to live independently, and rely on the support of different lovers.
The second section focuses on the period after democracy. Despite the new government’s commitment to provide infrastructure and social welfare, Hunter discerns growing inequality and unemployment. Middle class Africans moved out of apartheid designated spaces, to take up professional work, occupy homes, and attend better schools in Mandini. Yet, at the same time, thousands of workers lost their jobs as government withdrew subsidies from the industrial park. Because new migrants still arrive and larger domestic units constantly split into smaller households, government faces a moving target in terms of housing provision.
Hunter argues that since 1994 women have claimed rights to sexual pleasure, safe sex, consumer goods, independence from male control over their bodies, and to children. But the assertion of the rights has been a ‘lightning rod’ for tensions on lines of gender, and they are only fully realised by a small elite of bold, sexually assertive women. Discourses of rights exist alongside older notions of respect. Women still regard bridewealth as a sign of love, and have re-invented traditions such as virginity testing. Masculine respectability is tied up with conspicuous consumption and linked to courtship and sexual conquest. Yet men who have many women, with no intention to marry, are blamed for going too far and for spreading disease. Hunter contends that masculine violence – as in rape and homophobic attacks – are connected to anxieties about masculine failure.
Class and status mediates intimate relations. In a context where men earn up to ten times the salaries of women, women rely on gifts provided by different male partners. Without invoking Mauss, Hunter distinguishes between these gifts and other forms of payment. Gifts are...