A decade after South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy, HIV/AIDS has superseded freedom struggles as the urgent matter of the day. With one of the highest national rates of HIV infection in the world, South Africa faces a bleak demographic future. The principal mode of HIV transmission, unprotected intercourse, and the stigma that surrounds this issue have recently spurred historians to probe patterns of sexual and etiological socialization. But an equally important and related theme, perceptions of mortality, has yet to receive this level of recognition. Indeed, comprehensive studies of death seldom feature in the social history of South Africa. This exploratory article traces the intellectual and topical currents propelling social historians to broaden their understanding of sexuality and health, two phenomena determining views of mortality in the age of AIDS. It reasserts a forte of the "new" social history—the study of the "ways of death"—to offer insights to researchers seeking to integrate analyses of sexuality, disease, and mortality. Finally, by examining three epidemics in South Africa, this article explores penitential mourning as both a medium of power (through which people command deference, assign blame, or challenge authority) and a ritual of coping with the "pollution" of death and sexual transgression.

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pp. 199-218
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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