Introduction Nelleke Bak

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Nelleke Bak

(Post-Graduate Enrolment and Throughput Project, University of the Western Cape)
Tania Vergnani

(HIV/AIDS Programme, University of the Western Cape)

On 3 November 2001, the Post-graduate Enrolment and Throughput Project and the HIV/AIDS Programme at the University of the Western Cape hosted an interdisciplinary conference on HIV/AIDS. The main aim of the conference was to get an idea of the research that is being done in various institutions, departments and disciplines, and to stimulate debate across these boundaries. There are many post-graduate students and academics who are doing research on HIV/AIDS-related topics. HIV/AIDS researchers are active in the departments of Law, Public Health, Nursing, Dentistry, Economics, Education, Natural Sciences, Psychology, Sociology, Religious Studies, History, Languages and the School of Government.
The conference was driven by the idea that sharing some of the exciting work being done in these different fields would enrich students’ and academics’ insight into the pressing issue of AIDS. The University of the Western Cape acknowledges the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and endeavours to encourage teaching, research and best practice interventions to help curb the epidemic. This mini-conference was one of the ways in which the university is attempting to promote and disseminate research relating to HIV/AIDS. The conference afforded participants an opportunity to meet and network with others working on HIV/AIDS and to see their own research topic from a different perspective, to get constructive feedback on their research work, to share resources, readings, tips and ideas with others, and importantly, to be stimulated and enthused by the interchange at the conference.
In order to give every participant a chance to share their research work, different presentation options were available: research work could be presented in the form of an academic paper, a work-in-progress report or a poster. So as to maximize the dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, all types of presentations are included in this collection of research work. Moreover, the collection serves as a vehicle for post-graduate students to have their work published and distributed in a public forum. But most importantly of all, we hope that this collection of research work will contribute to a better understanding and a consolidated academic engagement with a devastating and urgent problem facing our society.

14 January 2002

Placing HIV/AIDS within the

broader context

AIDS in the context of South Africa’s epidemic history: Preliminary historical thoughts
Howard Phillips

(University of Cape Town)

In the reams of writing on AIDS in South Africa, both scholarly and popular, there runs a strong sense that this is an unspeakable epidemic, without precedent in the country’s history. It ‘defies description’, remarked a leading AIDS scholar recently1, while the South African chair of the AIDS 2000 Conference in Durban said he ‘could find no parallel in history for AIDS’ – it was an epidemic ‘the likes of which we have never seen’2.

Not surprisingly, at a popular level this perception has been even more marked. In 2000 Time magazine referred to AIDS in South Africa as being ‘worse than a disaster’ and of rural Kwazulu-Natal as being ‘the cutting edge of a continental apocalypse’, while very recently it followed up these dire descriptions of an entirely unparalleled disaster by labelling AIDS ‘humanity’s deadliest cataclysm’3.
The lack of a comparative perspective which such views suggest is a reflection not only of the authors’ short historical memory, but also on the relative failure of South African historiography to make past epidemic experiences part of the mainstream narrative of the country’s history. Recent general histories of South Africa make but passing reference to epidemics, and generally give greater prominence to epizootics like rinderpest and East Coast Fever than to smallpox, bubonic plague and influenza. In this regard AIDS has shown up very sharply this failure of historians of South Africa to fulfil one of the basic tasks of history as a discipline, i.e. what the American historian Joseph Strayer called the ability to help in ‘meeting new situations, not because it provides a basis for prediction, but because a full understanding of human behaviour in the past makes it possible to find familiar elements in present problems and thus makes it possible to solve them more intelligently’4.
In this article I want to suggest that if AIDS in South Africa is indeed put into comparative South African historical epidemic perspective, our ability to comprehend it (and dare I say thus to deal with it?) is expanded significantly by the recognition this permits of where it represents continuities with past epidemics and where it represents discontinuities. As a result, its true character and contours become easier to discern.
This initial attempt to provide such historical perspectives will focus on the main features of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, and then investigate whether they are indeed without precedent in the country’s epidemic history. This approach is intended to highlight most clearly what is novel about AIDS in South Africa and what is part of well-established epidemic patterns, as a means of allowing its distinctive features to stand out more clearly.

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