So what exactly is a “fragile context”? According to the United Nations Development Programme, this could be a situation where there is “a unique set of challenges related to power, legitimacy, trust between the state and citizens, social cohesion, inequality and exclusion” and “these socio-political factors can play out in many different permutations in highly fluid, or conversely, entrenched patterns.”1
Extrapolating from this set of ideas, and thinking of my own work during and after South Africa’s apartheid state, in both the HIV and LGBTI/queer space, I argue that a fragile context exacerbates the vulnerability of persons in families and relationships, and communities struggling to survive. It also can have an impact on institutions, and political and economic processes, which are vulnerable to state influence or which operate in ways to disrespect the dignity and rights of citizens.
While the apartheid state was in its own way quite robust, enabled by a legal and economic system of exclusion maintained with an oppressive military and security machinery, it became increasingly fragile as popular resistance deepened and international opprobrium and pressure increased. Certainly, trust was at an all time low at its end, and there was little genuine cohesion and no equality or social justice whatsoever.
Under apartheid, same sex sexuality was criminalised, largely through the Immorality Act, and it was gay men in particular who were targeted for prosecutions and harassment. This act, and the general air of social disapproval from all sectors of society, not just Afrikaner nationalists, meant that if you were a gay or lesbian person, or indeed if you were non conforming in any way around gender and sexuality, you were marginalised, oppressed and vigilant. For queer people the apartheid era was an extremely fragile context. Thinking about this now, from an intersectionalities perspective, factors like race and class meant that “fragility’ was also a product of other phenomena, suggesting being queer in South Africa was not a uniform experience.
And the final thread of my narrative draws on how HIV was framed by the social imagination of its time – for the Apartheid state, HIV was a problem of a marginal and illegal minority (mostly gay men in the “first wave” of HIV in South Africa) and therefore not the business or interest of the state. And in the post-apartheid state, because HIV was stigmatised and because the state was ambivalent about queerness (despite our Constitution), being a person living with HIV, and even more so a queer person living with HIV, was for a long time a precarious and fragile existence.
Against this backdrop, I make these remarks at this Irish Aid Partner Forum here in Harare, feeling very moved and emotional. To be in Zimbabwe makes me think of a Zimbabwean friend who passed away a few years ago, by his own hand. To preserve his anonymity I will call him Ndaba. Ndaba was HIV positive and unemployed, not because of his HIV status but because problems with addiction and depression had rendered him unable to properly function in society.
Ndaba was like a son and a brother – and I mention him also because the “victims” of fragile contexts are often hidden, or at least hidden from the limelight. Ndaba’s story is also relevant for our meeting here in that it highlights the hidden consequences of patriarchy, a social phenomenon which is always at play, even in (and perhaps because of) fragile contexts. The most obvious consequences of toxic patriarchy are violence and ways in which women are devalued and prevented from reaching their potential, but in Ndaba’s case it was the way his father treated his mother, and the knock on effect on Ndaba, that I want to share.
Ndaba’s father left the family when Ndaba was still very small and formed another relationship and family elsewhere, leaving Ndaba’s mother to cope financially, emotionally and as a single parent. Ndaba always told me that he longed for his father and could never understand why the family (and he) had been abandoned. I was moved to hear how his mother embraced and welcomed the children of the other family, but for Ndaba this abandonment was a wrench from which he never fully recovered.
When he was living in South Africa his mother passed away rather suddenly, and Ndaba, who had always grappled with depression, spiralled into addiction and becoming HIV positive. Ultimately, he could not hold on to the idea that he was worthy of life and he took his own about 4 years ago, around Christmas time, often a moment when loneliness can feel more acute. A fragile person in a fragile context is often not strong enough to survive.
My own life journey into being an HIV worker has always been driven by a sense of wanting to challenge unfairness. Growing up during apartheid helped me see how racism was an evil system that dehumanised people because it assumed they were second class, less human, worthy of being harmed and oppressed. I was raised in a home with two older feminist sisters and I think the idea of social justice was wired into me at a very young age. Of course I have come to realise that one never fully transcends one’s social context and while I see myself as an advocate for social justice, I also need to constantly work on my own unearned privilege and unconscious prejudice, as a white person, as male and able bodied, and middle class.
As noted earlier, one of the key features of the first wave of HIV in South Africa was that it manifested in gay men, mostly white. This was a time not only when apartheid was a racist state, but when it was also a state that had on its statute books laws which not only criminalised sex between different “race groups” but also between those engaged in same-sex encounters, the aforementioned Immorality Act.
While homosexual practice was illegal in South Africa then, BEING gay or lesbian was not illegal (and of course how do you police an identity?) and so there was a significant, albeit racially divided, homosexual community, spaces to socialise and organisations which formed on the basis of providing support, connection and community. One of the lessons I learned from this was that even in a hostile environment, it is possible for forms of connection to survive, and now that we are in the internet and social media era, this is even more possible, within of course the limitations of connectivity and possible state censorship. Community mobilisation can take many forms and it was interesting to see how in the face of a common threat, it was possible for differences of opinion to be put to one side.
An interesting parallel with this situation I am describing and the climate of gender based violence is that both anti-homosexual sentiment and patriarchal ideas are based on the idea of “natural” and “normal”. To be heterosexual is “normal” and “natural” and the idea that men should rule is also framed by many societies as “normal” and “natural”. A useful strategy, even though it is a long term one, is to challenge the ideas of “normal” and “natural” and to argue that many ideas, attitudes, beliefs, practices, and ways of being, are learned in a social context. Not only can they be unlearned, but as we change, we raise our children differently too.
In the early 1990s, as the epidemic in South Africa began to shift and manifest in the heterosexual world too, there was an interesting tension in our country and in the HIV response. As it became clear that apartheid was going to fall, the sense of “certainty” about the future was removed, and the realisation that power was going to shift meant that there needed to be a way to bring our early HIV response (some HIV programmes were now being run out of municipal and metropolitan city councils) into line with the thinking of the government in waiting, in the form of the ANC health desk.
And so a national process was developed to bring role players and actors and constituents from across the board into a series of engagements with returnees from exile and those that had remained in SA, to develop a draft National AIDS Plan. This process was called NACOSA (the National AIDS Committee of South Africa). I was involved in aspects of this, particularly in the development of the counselling component. What was interesting about this process was how it built alliances across constituencies that may not have easily trusted each other but who had a shared goal in mind, and that was to develop an AIDS plan that could work. It was also a way to challenge the racialised and divided past of our country – a National AIDS Plan had to address the needs of ALL South Africans, and indeed of all people who found themselves inside our country.
Working with stigma was always – and I believe continues to be – a challenge. Stigma has always challenged the HIV response and in that sense we could argue hostile social norms and ways in which people with HIV are “othered”, harmed and discriminated against are a “fragile context”. It is interesting for me that even though we have testing and treatment and greater acceptance in society, stigma and fear persist.
Just recently the Zambian government indicated it was making HIV testing compulsory, a decision it then apparently revoked in the face of tremendous criticism. Organizations of people living with HIV in Zambia made representations to the government to rescind the decision. “While the policy aims, according to President Lungu, to improve HIV testing and treatment adherence rates, on the contrary, coercive measures fuel stigma and drive people away from healthcare facilities” said Carol Nawina Nyirenda Executive for CITAMplus.2
It is ironic that compulsory testing is often driven, officially anyway, by the idea that it will bring people into treatment and thus lower stigma as more people are well and empowered, yet the very thing that stops people from accepting testing is the fear of rejection itself!
What stigma does is that it shows us the fault lines in our societies – it is often the least powerful or the most socially marginalised who are stigmatised: gay men, trans people, sex workers, drug users, foreigners, women, people who are seen as “promiscuous”, and young people. So stigma is a mirror to our social attitudes and reinforces who has power and who does not.
What I have learnt from stigma, and working with attempts to address it, is that it is important to read, to do research, and to ask what theory can tell me. Our understanding of HIV stigma today is built on a rich history of theorists and researchers: Irving Goffman’s work on social stigma, and Paula Treichler’s work on HIV as an epidemic of signs and symbols and subtle messages which tapped into other prejudices. Susan Sontag’s work on “AIDS as metaphor” showed us that societies bring meaning to illness. And of course sterling work has come out of our continent on understanding the why, what and how of stigma in our various contexts.3
I know that we can sometimes see theory and research as a luxury, especially for those of us working at the coalface. When you are dealing with anxious, sick, marginalised and traumatised people – and those of us here in the gender based violence (GBV) space can relate to this – there is often no time to read, research and reflect. But I have to say – and yes I am privileged in working for a university – that theory and research and reading are what keep me sane.
I have also had the privilege of meeting ground breaking social researchers: Paula Treichler – who spoke about “How to have theory in an epidemic” – and Susan Kippax, who both challenged me to see beyond my own narrow thinking as a psychologist. Kippax’s work showed me the limitations of so much of my thinking on human behaviour – that our emphasis that the individual must change their behaviour, and that they have complete control over their behaviour, was naïve.
In fact, she argues, it is our social belief systems, the community, economic, legal, gender and political systems which we live under which shape our behaviour so powerfully, yet we urge the individual to change, and blame them if they do not. I am not saying that individual’s do not have responsibility and are blameless, but we are all so “marinated” in systems of belief and practice – which as I said earlier we regard as normal and natural – that the idea of individual “control” is very optimistic. I am sure those of us here working in the gender field can relate to this! The exposure to these ideas has given me perspective and allowed me to be kinder to myself and to see my own work differently.
Talking of political systems, even though I regard the apartheid years as the most oppressive and damaging, it has also been interesting to live through three different presidents in post-apartheid South Africa, and to see how their leadership style and attitudes towards HIV have framed our way of working with HIV as a country. Briefly, I would say that the Nelson Mandela years were a time where solid work was being done on HIV, but there was perhaps a lack of urgency. The fact that he only spoke out more personally about a family member with HIV AFTER his presidency, suggests that as a nation we “took our eye off the ball.”
The Thabo Mbeki years were characterised, as you may know, by his own intellectual ambivalence around whether “a virus could cause a syndrome” and this caused tremendous damage to our HIV response, because while the HIV fraternity (in government and civil society) was unified in working for prevention and care, some key and senior role players hindered the HIV response. In the end the government was taken to court by the Treatment Action Campaign – an organisation that showed the power of a well-mobilised social movement to bring treatment to our citizenry.
And now we are living in the Jacob Zuma era which is a fascinating time, not only for those of us working in the field of HIV, but also those of us who are interested in the role of patriarchy, polygamy, and certain kinds of masculinity and how these are woven into people’s beliefs and practices. While our HIV response right now cannot be said to be operating in an obviously “fragile context” it would be true to say that where there are masculinist leadership styles on display, and where male and female politicians act in ways which are patriarchal, then our HIV, and indeed our GBV work, is challenged to be creative and thoughtful.
What helps me to navigate through all of this is to see how forms of oppression may intersect with each other. I do not see HIV as a stand-alone issue – just a health issue for example – rather it goes to the heart of how a society organises itself around gender power. It asks us to think about how our anxious attitudes to human sexuality may mean we fail to empower and protect young people. It forces us to examine how economic exclusion may push some people into sex work or transactional sex. And it challenges us to rethink how our economy’s reliance on mining makes men and their partners vulnerable because they are separated for so many months of the year.
What sustains me in thinking about all of this is to hold on to some optimism for the future we are trying to create in South Africa, and the constitutional basis for this optimism. Some years ago, in 2007 to be precise, the then Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, made a speech at the Out in Africa gay and lesbian film festival. He said that South Africa’s constitution explicitly wanted to build a new society, a society which rejected oppression of people based on something which was an inbuilt part of them, not only their race, but their sexual orientation, and of course their gender. So he linked racism, sexism and homophobia as forms of oppression to be rejected.
“We need to remind our people [he said] that we need a radical rupture from the past and that is not limited to race, that rupture includes family relations – it’s a rejection of patriarchy. Probably one of the most entrenched and most substantial forms of oppression still in this country is unequal relations between men and women within family arrangements and explains in many ways a whole of range of deficiencies that women still have to be subjected to. So we need a more comprehensive rupture that will equalize the power relationships in society and create a much more equitable society.”4
Of course this is a major challenge and for those of us here in the room, it can feel overwhelming, daunting and even depressing. Let me conclude by sharing four other strategies which work for me:
Firstly, finding people who think like me is critical. I do not mean I only want to mix with people like me – in fact I want to be challenged to think differently and out of the box – but there are times when you need to find “your people” and be with them, and get support from them. This bolsters your critical thinking and your theory so you are equipped to deal with the world out there and its challenges.
Secondly, expressing my creativity is fundamental for me. I am lucky that my current position allows me to do this, but creativity is also an attitude to my work, which I can take with me everywhere. How can I do this differently, what new techniques exist, how can I use other ways to research, to do, to reflect on my work? Being willing to take risks, to even be thought of as “mad”, to go against the flow, is part of this.
Thirdly, staying sex positive in HIV work has saved my sanity. There are so many moralists out there and if I gave into their views, no one would ever have sex again, or they would only be allowed to if they were abstinent until marriage to their opposite sex partner, stayed together for life and preferably did not enjoy sex too much while they made babies!
I believe sex is part of the human condition and is often messy and complicated, and I prefer to embrace this complexity rather than try to constrain it. For those of us working in GBV and gender justice, it can be easy to fall into the trap of simply blaming men – or sometimes blaming women who stay in abusive relationships or who justify their patriarchal oppression, or who raise their children to be patriarchal too. Blaming is easy, understanding is harder. There ARE good men out there and we need to bring them into our alliance.
And fourthly and finally, taking care of myself is not negotiable. I MUST seek support, but of course I must first acknowledge I need it. This work – whether it is HIV, or gender, or working with marginalised people – can be hard, and it can eat us up. And we are in the work as persons with lives and histories, with gender and sexuality, with beliefs and practices, and so we cannot simply detach from it. It touches us and we need to see how and where it does so, and then find ways to limit harm to ourselves and to others.
When my friend Ndaba took his own life, I felt lots of guilt, that I had let him and his family down, and that my skills as a psychologist were in doubt. But it helped me to see that many complicated factors contributed to his final act, and even though I wished he had not done it, he exercised some agency at the end. It was an exercise in humility for me, but I was also able to acknowledge that I had been a good friend and that I’d given him what he needed, a safe space, a listening ear, empathy and respect. I know our clients – and the communities we work with – often want, and deserve, more, but seeing this work as part of a long and ongoing history will sustain you.
Pierre Brouard, Deputy Director, CSA&G, University of Pretoria, Irish Aid Partner Forum, Harare, 11 and 12 September 2017
3 See for example https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4272102/