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Tuesday 11 July 2006
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SOUTH AFRICA: Contrasting HIV-positive lives

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  Liz McGregor

JOHANNESBURG, 30 June (PLUSNEWS) - Three South African narratives about a journalist, a judge and a radio disc jockey who shared an intruder in their bodies, the HI virus that causes AIDS, were published last year. Although their lives and personalities differed sharply, they were all successful, affluent and had loving families.

Judge Edwin Cameron and journalist Adam Levin are openly gay and white; Fana Khaba was a womaniser and black. Their contrasting lives mirror South Africa's HIV/AIDS dilemma.

Each man was successful in ways possible only after apartheid. Khaba rose from poverty to local stardom, accompanied by a fast and flashy lifestyle. Cameron must be the only white, openly gay high court judge on the African continent, while Levin's funky, perceptive, gay fashion and travel writing has been featured in many magazines and newspapers.

Few white South Africans know their HIV status or are prepared to disclose it, but Cameron went public in 1999, one of the first whites to do so. Khaba (nicknamed Khabzela) declared he was HIV positive in 2003 during his popular talk show on Yfm radio - a youth station in Johannesburg - becoming one of the first black celebrities to take the step. Levin told his friends, family and employers.


Cameron in 'Witness to AIDS' and Levin in 'AIDSSafari' wrote autobiographies, for which they were jointly awarded the prestigious Alan Paton 2006 literary prize by the Sunday Times newspaper last week. Khaba's story, 'Khabzela, The Life and Times of a South African' by Liz McGregor, is a posthumous biography.

That two of the three are still alive hinges on the choices they made: they all had access to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, information, money and specialist doctors.

Cameron and Levin took their pills daily; Khaba started taking ARVs but soon quit. Instead, he consulted traditional healers and put himself in the hands of miracle-peddlers, who fed him concoctions of garlic, olive oil, plant steroids, African potato, an indigenous tuber, and vitamins.

Why did Khaba, a "modern, urban, cosmopolitan man" do this? According to author Liz McGregor, he believed he had been bewitched, and distrusted Western medicine.

His personal nurse, a Dutch woman recommended by the Minister of Health, believed her herbal concoctions were better than ARVs. They were not. In January 2004, at the age of just 35, Khaba died a horrible death - demented, crippled, lonely, covered in bedsores. "A premature death, all the more tragic because it was preventable," wrote McGregor.

Levin embarked on a personal journey of "sheer, interminable agony ... humiliating dependency and frightening uncertainties".

He experienced life-threatening opportunistic infections and debilitating side effects from the medication. Bedridden for months, tortured by nerve pains in his feet, he lost his hair and teeth, required dentures at 35, had tuberculosis, cancer, chemotherapy, a catheter in his urethra, and even more unpleasant conditions that make some chapters difficult to read.

Yet he flatly refused "to collapse in some filthy, miserable heap of self-pity", and wrote two books during that time: his 'AIDSSafari' and another about the art of shopping in Africa.

Consciously individualistic, Levin doesn't reach out to the HIV-positive community and commented after watching a television documentary on World AIDS Day, "I was moved to tears, and yet it all still seemed so far away".


As 'Witness to AIDS' suggests, Cameron became an activist, and writes with "sombre passion" that is clear, didactic and serious, as befits a judge. While his work is the driest, with all 'juicy' personal detail squeezed out, it is informative and compassionate, a chronicle of AIDS in the world and in South Africa that explains the science, demystifies patent laws and politely rebuts the "pseudo-science" of dissidents.

Always conscious of his "position of exceptional privilege", Cameron joined an AIDS lobby group, the Treatment Action Campaign, in challenging the government's response to the disease, which he describes as "hobbled with ambivalence and uncertainty".

Khaba's dramatic tale relates how he "surfed every wave that came crashing with democracy": taxi-driver, celebrity DJ, musician, youth icon and AIDS casualty.

McGregor examines the fault lines of Khaba's notion of masculinity: his "fantastically promiscuous ... predatory sexuality", which harvested many lovers and many children, yet left him "a fragile creature, deeply dependent on women and their approval".

Khaba was hailed as a hero for going public about his status. His employers offered to pay his medical bills and keep his job until he got well. He was privileged at a time when South Africa was dragging its heels about a national treatment rollout.

One reason for his refusal to take ARVs, says the author, was his inability to relinquish control and submit to the strict daily regimen of pills and the lifestyle changes required by ARVs.

However, McGregor tiptoes around a key issue: the often conflicting statements made by the South African government, notably President Thabo Mbeki and health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who have repeatedly raised doubts about the efficacy of ARVs.

Their mixed messages, says Cameron, have sown "confusion among those at risk of HIV". Fana Khaba was a perfect example. Cameron admitted in his book that ARVs are no picnic, but they do keep people alive, turning AIDS into "a remediable adversity" and allowing them to write books about living with AIDS, instead of inspiring books about death due to AIDS.

For more information about the books:


Khabzela: The life and times of a South African –

Witness to AIDS –


Recent SOUTH AFRICA Reports
New strategies needed to meet shortfalls says Global Fund report,  29/Jun/06
New AIDS threat looms,  19/Jun/06
Govt wants to monitor PEPFAR funding,  12/Jun/06
HIV-positive Muslims take comfort in their faith,  26/May/06
'In the Continuum' gives HIV/AIDS a human face,  26/May/06
· AIDS Media Center
· The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
· International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
· International HIV/AIDS Alliance

PlusNews does not take responsibility for info in links supplied.

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