So Jacob Zuma is sorry about having unprotected sex with someone three decades younger than himself, who is not one of the five women he’s married. That’s a little better than last week’s “You should be proud that I’ve admitted paternity and paid a fine. What are you all so uptight about?” HIV activists are pretty upset. Me, I prefer to see what he’s done as a good thing.
I’m not one to get uptight about extramarital sex. But I am not president of a country where one in five adults is infected with a still-fatal sexually transmitted virus. Mr. Zuma has rubbed South Africa’s nose in the fact that he racks up as many sex partners as he can, and he doesn’t use condoms.
How is that a good thing? Well, it allows us to say the unsayable: countries get the HIV epidemics they deserve.
Want a hyper-epidemic? All you need is a tradition of polygamy AND high levels of female autonomy. Big Men have their little network of wives and/or lovers. Women buy in to duty sex for the status and security, but get to run their own little networks on the side, for the fun of it. That has been the pattern in South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and a number of other countries where more than one adult in seven has HIV.
But woe betide anyone who points this out. At best, you are insensitive to cultural traditions. At worst, you are perpetuating racist myths of the hypersexualised African male, blah, blah, blah.
Now South Africa’s president is unrepentantly living the myth. He has been married five times, and is currently shared by three wives (one of the others killed herself). He’s got another fiancée in the wings for good measure. In 2006 he was acquitted of rape charges, and now we find he’s bonking the daughter of an old mate who’s running the World Cup organising committee. This puts him in good company. In neighbouring Swaziland, where one adult in three has HIV, the king sets an example by taking a new teenaged wife every couple of years — a baker’s dozen so far.
Here’s another thing that Mr. Zuma’s behaviour has laid bare: HIV is a preventable infection. Good governments prevent it. Bad ones hide behind the very culture, tradition and customs that allow the virus to spread, and then throw their hands up when prevalence get so high that HIV will continue to spread even if behaviour does change.
The saintly Nelson Mandela was unforgivably slow to do anything to address the sexual behaviours that were spreading HIV. His successor Thabo Mbeki compounded the problem by simply denying that the sexually transmitted virus was in any way linked to a four-fold rise in death rates among young adults. Besides spotlighting his sexual escapades, Mr. Zuma used his 2006 rape trial to give us a new perspective on how to stay HIV-free. Sorry I had unprotected sex with an HIV-infected woman he said, but don’t worry about me, I had a shower afterwards, so I won’t catch anything.
Unfazed by his flagrant disdain for his own health ministry’s HIV prevention efforts, (or by the pack of corruption charges that stalk him, or by his growing posse of wives) the people of South Africa support Jacob Zuma anyway. It’s a healthy democracy, and that’s their right. But I think it is time that voters in other countries stopped subsidising the fatally bad behaviour of South African leaders. Why should Americans give South Africa over half a billion dollars of PEPFAR money a year, in part to promote abstinence, monogamy and condom use, when the electorate of the country supports a man who is the embodiment of the behaviours and attitudes that spread HIV? Because, you might argue, the government of the richest country in Africa, which is also pocketing over US$ 160 million for HIV from the Global Fund, can’t even organise itself to keep anti-retrovirals in stock. I’d say that’s all the more reason to stop propping up bad leadership on HIV.
This post is for Dot and the thousands of other hard-working health care professionals in South Africa who have to pick up the pieces.