It Was Not Only a Racial Segregation System but the Birth of Violence and Transmission of HIV/AIDS

By: Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini, Johannesburg, South Africa

Why South Africa?

Why has HIV burgeoned in South Africa particularly? The answer has many parts, and this issue unpacks a piece of one of them: the cruel history that scarred the country. Apartheid was a separatist system made legal in South Africa that divided races, and perpetrated brutal crimes of torture, rape and murder against people of colour, disproportionately Blacks, as well as whites who openly opposed it. Communities of colour were allocated insufficient and inferior resources; families were forcibly removed from their homes and torn apart through a migrant labour system. Although apartheid has been overturned, its lingering legacy of male emasculation, abuse and violence against women, breakdown of the family unit and systemic inequalities forms the backdrop for the spread of the epidemic.

Credit: Dr. Fatima Laher, CRS Leader, Soweto-Bara CRS and Director, PHRU Vaccines Research, Soweto, South Africa

Apartheid in South Africa

In 1948 a system aimed at racial discrimination came into effect after the White-only National Party government came into power. The policy served to formalize and legitimize the racial exploitation which was heralded by discovery of diamonds in Kimberly and gold in Johannesburg in the 1860s. History tells us that exploitation and slavery of Blacks had begun long before the diamonds and gold discovery, when South African indigenous people were dispossessed of their land.

"Homelands" of South Africa
Figure 1 Homelands in South Africa pre 1994 Click for high-res version

Apartheid aimed at segregating both Blacks from Whites, and the different ethnic groups within the black population. The first such aspect involved the geographical displacement of millions of black people from urban to rural areas, which were named ‘homelands’ and were segregated according to ethnic origin as per demographics and  black population languages that were spoken (Figure 1) (Swati, Venda, SeSotho, SePedi, IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeTswana, Shangaan and Ndebele).

This process began with The Group Areas Act, which was enacted in June 1950 . Within the urban areas, the displacement pushed Blacks and other people of color to the borders of urban areas or outside of the cities, which were grossly disadvantaged in terms of services such as healthcare and educational facilities. In addition, the Separate Amenities Act of 1953 established a system of separate public facilities, such as buses and restaurants, for Whites and Non-Whites . An example of these forced removals was that of the residents at the center of Johannesburg who were moved to Soweto (South Western Township). The result of this movement was that black people had to travel long distances to work, were allocated poor housing facilities and experienced disruptions in their family lives .  Following this, millions of black males were brought from the homelands in order to staff the mines and various industries, thus leading to the rise of migrant labor. These men could not bring their families with them and lived in overcrowded single-sex hostels with poor living conditions (Figure 2) . 

Men only Hostels
Figure 2: Men only Hostels by Felix Dlangamandla Click for high-res version

Not all gold glitters

Lewin (1985) notes the destructive impact of apartheid on black family life, where families were broken up as a result of migrant labor. He notes that most of the migrant laborers spent most of their lives away from their wives and children, which encouraged alcoholism, recklessness, and promiscuity. In addition to being separated from their families, Reid & Walker (2005) argue that South African men’s masculinities have been shaped in a profound way by closed institutions such as hostels and compounds. Gold and diamond mining, which has been the center of the South African economy, was developed as a result of the migrant system where men stayed in single-sex hostels in brutal and humiliating conditions. These men faced high levels of risk at work and often engaged in high-risk behaviors in social settings.

Breckenridge (1998) notes that the atmosphere in the mines was one of violence, where white shift leaders would beat black miners on a regular basis, thus creating a culture of violence among mineworkers. In black culture men were recognized as the head of the household, therefore the treatment men received at work had an impact on them attempting to reclaim their position when they got back home. Thus apartheid masculinities came to be mostly violent, authoritarian and patriarchal. The complex interplay of social processes during apartheid, as well as economic and political factors, served to fuel violence against women as African men tried to reassert their authority, which took the form of patriarchal domination . For these men, sexual violence was an outlet for their anger and an expression of their power, as well as a form of control when they had no control over other aspects of their lives. Reclaiming their power and control manifested in domestic violence where men beat their wives and children.

Blacks were often stopped for passbooks
Figure 3: Blacks were often stopped for passbooks Passlaws-south-Africa-1800-1994 Click for high-res version

The pass laws enacted in 1952 forced black people to carry ‘passbooks’1, which regulated their travel and were often used to force people from the urban areas to the rural homelands, creating an enormous population of unemployed people in the rural areas with no hope of finding work (Figure 3). Employment in the urban areas was created only for men, including domestic services. Black women were meant to remain in the rural areas to look after the children and only have interaction with their husbands once a year. The passbooks also served to control the movement of these women to the urban areas. Men were stopped randomly to be asked for the passbook and were sometimes humiliated in front of their wives or partners. Bantu Authories Act, No. 68 of 1951 and  Native Coordinations of Documents Act, No. 67 of 1952 were among the two pieces of legislation used to enforce movement within the so called ‘white areas’ and carrying of passbooks. This served as just another measure of separating families and keeping men from their spouses and children.

[1] Passbook: an official document that black people had to carry with them to prove their identity and where they could live or work, commonly known as dompas.

The destruction of a black man’s family continues 

Harries (1990) comments that black men were also torn away from the traditions and beliefs of a structured tribal life, which left them vulnerable to certain ‘evils’ such as alcohol. The destruction of black families during apartheid also had a profound effect on the children of migrant workers, especially young men, who were often left unsupervised and as a result became petty criminals and gangsters who engaged in violence against other gangs, against authority, and against women (Delius & Glaser, 2002; Morrell, 1998). Coovadia et al (2009) note that the abduction and rape of women were common among these young men from the 1940s, arguing that apartheid had made many traditional aspects of adult manhood, such as having a family and being a provider, unattainable. In addition, many children grew up without their fathers, which Coovadia et al (2009) argue undermined the socialization process in children, especially boys, into responsible and disciplined adults.

Violence: the only way to solve issues

People’s opposition to apartheid profoundly shaped male identities. Soldiers that fought against the apartheid government in the African National Congress’ and Pan Africanist Congress’ armed wings, Umkhonto we Sizwe and Azanian People’s Liberation Army, were seen as heroes, which was also true of the young men involved in anti-apartheid battles in townships . This has been referred to as the ‘struggle masculinity’ which was characterized by high levels of violence and militancy, justified as an essential response to the apartheid government . The transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990’s served to unsettle these masculinities, which had become entrenched over the period of the struggle. Thus, changes in the law and political system did not necessarily end violence against women. This is still especially evident in South Africa where rape and physical abuse are considered to be a cultural norm .  Apartheid served to fuel violence on the occasions when peaceful marches against the system were turned into bloody battles by the apartheid government, leaving a number of Blacks dead. Two examples are the 1960 massacre when a non-violent protest by unarmed group marching against pass laws left 69 people dead (Figure 4). Again in 1976, a peaceful march by students protesting against Afrikaans as the language of instruction is estimated to have resulted in 575 people losing their lives (Figure 5) . It must also be appreciated that these laws did not deter the resistance of black people in their movements to the cities.

Figure 4: Sharpeville Massacre 1961 City of Click for high-res version
June 16 1976 Soweto Uprising
Figure 5: June 16 1976 Soweto Uprising Photo by Sam Nzima Click for high-res version

What will it take to return to the normal state?

After the abolishment of apartheid and the infamous pass laws in the 1990s, many people moved from the then homelands into urban areas where they mainly settled in ‘informal settlements, which often had no water, electricity, or sanitation, and minimal, if any, health and educational services. This intensified poverty and furthered the spread of disease, including HIV. Coovadia (2009) argues that the overcrowding, malnutrition and lack of sanitation in many black communities are strongly linked to their high burden of disease. The high mobility of large portions of the population also allowed for the rapid movement of the virus into new communities . Ogura (1996) and Cameron (2003) note the rapid urbanization that occurred in the 1980’s, where South African black people were moving into urban areas at a rate of 3.5% per year. However, despite the rapid rates of urbanization, migration continued, with temporary labor migration within the democratic South Africa having increased, driven mostly by the rise in female labor migration . In their study, Lurie, et al. (2003) found that men who were migrants and had lived in four or more places had a significantly increased risk for HIV-1 infection compared to non-migrant men.

Migrant laborers also came, and continue to come, from other African countries, often as refugees from countries where HIV/AIDS is rampant, which has greatly influenced the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa . Migrant laborers were often involved in casual and extramarital sexual encounters, often with sex workers, which significantly impacted  the spread of HIV/AIDS . In addition, many of the workers engaged in homosexual relationships, often due to the complete lack of contact with women for long periods of time . Coovadia, et al. (2009) note that the women left behind in the rural areas often had other sexual partners while their husbands were away, while Zwi & Cabral (1991) argue that some of these women resorted to commercial sex in order to supplement their incomes.

In addition, the extramarital sexual encounters that many migrant laborers engaged in during apartheid continued even after its abolishment, and are now frequent among such men and widely tolerated by women . Interestingly, Gilbert and Walker (2002) argue that social inequality is the greatest transmitter of HIV/AIDS. They note the strong link between low income, high unemployment, and poor education (as represented by the Human Development Index) and HIV infection rates. This is echoed by Zwi & Cabral (1991), who refer to South Africa as a high-risk situation as a result of factors such as impoverishment, disenfranchisement, rapid urbanization, labor migration, widespread population displacements, and social disruption. In addition, both Mitton (2000) and Coovadia et al. (2009) note that great health inequities continue to exist within South Africa, despite the equal rights of all its citizens under the new democracy.

The apartheid government claimed that the apartheid segregation was equal, although the white community had attained a standard of living that was equal to those living in a first-world country, and the black community’s standard of living was comparable to some of the least developed countries in the world . The effects of apartheid can still be seen today, almost 25 years into democracy. Two of the most obvious areas of concern include healthcare and education . Aspects of these inequalities have facilitated the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world. The poor or non-existent health and educational facilities within these areas meant that people living there were not informed about HIV/AIDS and its prevention . Cameron (2003) notes that the government health expenditure was five times greater for white people than for black people during apartheid.

Within democratic South Africa, sex and sexuality has taken center stage in the media and government as a result of a number of factors, namely the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, as well as high rates of gender-based violence, rape, and child sexual abuse. Thus, it becomes clear that the transition to democracy brought changes to the existing gender order at the same time. These changes can be seen in the South African Constitution, where changes in legislation led to the perception that women are better off in the new South Africa. Posel (2005) further notes that sex and sexuality have become intensely politicized in South Africa since 1994, often a source of heated public argument, mobilization, and conflict.

Along with these changes and the public focus on sex came significant consequences for men and masculinities. Men have been a driving force behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic and have also been blamed for the high rates of rape, gender-based violence, and child sexual abuse. Walker, Reid, & Cornell (2004) argue that during apartheid, sexual violence was masked by various factors such as a very narrow legal definition of rape, economically dependent family members who relied on the perpetrator within their families, as well as the disinterest of the racist state in the growing problem of gender-based violence in black communities. However, in the new South Africa, sexual violence has become a matter of public concern due to the prominence of sex and sexuality in public life . Cases of rape, especially those involving babies and children, are highly publicized and the blame is mostly placed on men, thus indicating a shift in expectations of men in the new social order, as well as a sense of role confusion .

It can be concluded that apartheid was indeed a system that demonstrated unjust laws, policies, and inequality according to race in terms of resources, treatment, and high levels of unjustified violence. Violence was by white men on black men in the workplace, and by the state to any person or group opposing the system, which then generated black men who translated that violence to their families, vulnerable women and children. The migrant labor system played a significant role in breaking families and family structures, leading to many unemployed landless adults. Unequal distribution of resources in education and health fuelled inequality politically, economically, and socially. On the other hand, HIV has led to a number of families headed by children or by a generation of older people. Zwi and Cabral (1991) argue that effective health interventions need to include behavioural, legal, social, information, and economic aspects, while Wight and Abraham (2000) emphasize that the key to building sustainable programs lies in acknowledging the socio-cultural context in which they will take place. This view is echoed by Campbell and Williams (1998), who emphasize the importance of the social, cultural, and economic factors in HIV transmission. South Africa is left with a wounded population that includes people who grew up feeling that that they were ‘sub-human’ beings. Changes in policy emphasizing the respect of people’s human rights has not yet translated to implementation.




Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini is a lecturer in the School of Human and Community Development at the University of Witwatersrand and a researcher with the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at University of Witwatersrand.


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