Updated 21 October 2016

AIDS, the it-won't-happen-to-me syndrome

They think they're safe travelling in life's first class, but when the plane crashes, there's no discrimination when it comes to AIDS.


They think they're safe travelling in life's first class, but when the plane crashes, there's no discrimination.

There is as much difference between knowing the facts about Aids, and practising safe sex, as there is between reading a diet book and shedding those kilos.

Many people who know the facts, ignore them when they have to make on-the-spot decisions in difficult situations. The danger remains something external, something not relevant to them at that time.

Attorney Makgatho Mandela (54) is suspected to have died of Aids; Zodwa Khoza (31) Orlando Pirates Football Club brand manger and daughter of Irvin Khoza contracted HIV within a marriage; DJ Fana Khabzela Khaba (38) preached safe sex but lost his life to Aids, SABC weather man Jabu Sithole (34) infected his wife; musicians Maruti Johannes Nkuna (40) and Tebogo Ndlovu (29), known in the industry as Umanji and Zombo respectively, have both been diagnosed with HIV, playwright Gibson Kente (72) died of Aids in 2004. The list goes on.

Getting away from South Africa: screen legend Rock Hudson died of it in 1985; and Earvin Johnson, the first public person in the US to announce his HIV-positive status, retired from NBA in 1991. It killed Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, in 1991 – he only revealed his status the day before he died; and it happened to author Isaac Asimov – he contracted it by means of blood transfusions during heart surgery in 1983, and died of heart and renal failure stemming from Aids in 1992.

HIV doesn't discriminate
HIV/Aids isn't a disease of the impoverished. Yet, somehow, those of us who live more privileged lives think – or hope – that it can't happen to us. Is there ignorance among the well educated, the wealthy and the successful, an attitude that says “HIV/Aids is not for me, it only affects others”?

Doc Shebeleza, chairman of African Musicians Against HIV/Aids (Amaha), appeared angered by the suggestion that it was ignorance that resulted in so many in the industry contracting HIV. As an artist, he said, you are on your own. Young musicians coming into the industry are faced with beautiful girls, fancy cars, drugs and alcohol, and it's up to you to know how you handle it.

The suggestion, of course, is that younger, more naïve people can very easily have their heads turned. Amaha has a vital role to play in helping them keep their feet on the ground.

Not only the rich are in denial
Criselda Kananda, a former nurse and host for Metro FM thinks so, but says the syndrome isn't limited to the rich and famous: There is ignorance amongst people around the world; that HIV is a condition for 'those people' and never about me, she said. It is the attitude that's still out there, period.

Nditsheni Ratshethga, a social worker at Love Life, says celebs have no excuse for getting it wrong: It would be very strange if there were still educated people or celebrities who are ignorant. There have been many concerts, like 46664, in which celebrities participate in HIV/Aids awareness.

But surely the issue is not what we know, but what we hope – the so-called 'business-class syndrome', which makes you feel safe, even though intellectually you might know that business-class travellers are no safer than economy class flyers?

Thandiwe Mngxuma, a counsellor at G.F Jooste Hospital, said that people often have the mentality that it can't happen to them. Whoever you are, you must be aware of your behaviour – and that includes wealthy and educated people, as well as celebrities. Having money does not take away the the threat of HIV/Aids, she concluded.

Why don't public figures reveal their status?
When Gugu Dlamini, one of the first South Africans to disclose her HIV-positive status, was stoned to death after her disclosure, South Africans were forced to confront the reality of prejudice against the HIV-positive.

Surely, however, public figures are different – they're not at risk of community assault, actual or not; and they can be key in saving the lives in future of people such as Gugu Dlamini? I asked Judge Edwin Cameron, who is openly HIV-positive, why people in the public eye so rarely reveal their status.

Judge Cameron said: There are good reasons and I can name a few - it’s a personal choice not to disclose your status; there is a stigma attached. But, he agreed, because this is a national crisis, we need people who are in public office to get tested from cabinet ministers to Members of Parliament.

Ratshethga agreed with the judge, saying that disclosing is a choice; people have a right to privacy. At the same time, she said, we cannot blame those who do not disclose. What we need to talk about is how responsible they are, given the fact that they are HIV-positive.

Practise what you preach
Kananda, who is also is managing director of Positive Talk Services and recipient of several awards, is HIV-positive. She discovered her status when she was married.

I spoke to her about DJ Khabzela who, on his show, used to talk about safe sex and the dangers of HIV/Aids, only to lose his life to Aids. What happened to practising what you preach?

Kananda defended him. Have you ever considered that maybe by the time Khabzela started preaching this message of practising safer sex, he was already infected she said. He wanted more young people to be aware and protect themselves against the condition. And, she said, he wanted to change a world that is quick to condemn those who do talk about their positive diagnosis, just as the media did with Khaba himself.

Steps to take when disclosing your status
Love life gave us these steps to take when disclosing your status:

  • The first step is to prepare yourself. Be realistic about possible negative responses. For example you could face stigma, discrimination or even rejection by family, friends, your community.
  • Also, prepare those around you by determining their level of understanding about HIV/Aids - if possible, inform them or educate them before disclosing, (Still there is no guarantee that they will just understand and accept.)
  • Disclose first to someone you can trust, a friend, or a family member.

(Tandeka Bafo, Health24, May 2008)




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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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