HEALTH FOCUS: HIV/AIDS testing turnout increases

The Wits Campus Health and Wellness Centre (CHWC) says it has seen an increase of over 50% in the number of students coming to the centre to test for HIV/Aids in the last three years.

Acting head of CHWC Sister Maggie Moloi said that since January to mid-April this year alone 695 students have tested for HIV.

She added that this number is likely to increase due to voluntary testing programmes that CHWC is currently running across all Wits campuses.

“We have partnered with Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme to encourage students to come test for HIV, more especially because April is World Health Month.
“We want to teach students to take responsibilities when they engage in sexual activities, to always protect themselves,” Moloi said.

Moloi added that the number of females that come to the centre to test for HIV is higher than that of males.

“We are taking the initiative to go to male residences to encourage them to visit our centre and test for HIV/Aids.”
Moloi said the CHWC is offering free male medical circumcisions to students as part of Operation Wise-Up.

“Research has shown that circumcised men stand less chance of contracting HIV compared to those who are not circumcised,” she said.

Lucky Tshabalala (21), third-year BA general, said that he has never tested for HIV before and he doesn’t think he will do it anytime soon.

“It’s scary. I don’t know what I would do if I found out that I have HIV. Maybe one day I’ll do the test but not anytime soon. I try to always use the condom but sometime when I am drunk I forget,” he said.
A nurse at CHWC, Sister Sylvia Mashaba, said that more still needs to be done to educate students to test for HIV/Aids regularly, especially if they are sexually active.

“Being HIV positive is not the end of the world. We still have students who think they can’t be infected with HIV … Anyone who engages in risky sexual behaviour can be infected by HIV,” Mashaba added.

Moloi said the CHWC is currently in the process of applying for accreditation to roll-out pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that reduces chances of contracting HIV, to students at Wits University.


No testing for HIV/AIDS during varsity exams

Witsies are not allowed to test for HIV during the exam period, according to a policy enforced by The Wits Campus Health and Wellness Centre (WCHC).

WCHC offers an HIV testing service to Wits students and staff throughout the year – except during exam time. Sister Maggie Moloi of WCHC said the policy is in line with the university. This policy states: “A student may not not use his/her HIV status as the sole reason for failing to perform work.” Moloi said: “We don’t want to add more stress than they can handle.”

Wits students approached by Wits Vuvuzela were generally against the policy. Nonkululeko Mayathula, 1st year BA, said: “I think it [the policy] is kind of loose in a way because it doesn’t make sense in terms of a person getting early detection and medication.”

She believed it was up to each student to make the decision to get tested whenever they saw fit. “I don’t think it’s up to the institution to say: this is when you can get tested and this is when you can’t get tested.”

Another student, who asked not to be named, said the policy should be reconsidered. “It’s a big thing, especially in South Africa, and early detection is important.”

A psychology Masters student, who cannot be named for professional reasons, explained that people reacted differently to trauma or to news that could induce trauma.

“People have something we call the ego-strength and this is the ability for them to deal with different experiences.”

The student said people did not always react immediately to situations. “It’s a process.” She said students should be able to choose when to get tested, since people reacted differently to situations based on their history.
People had different defence mechanisms and, while some might choose to “sweep it under the carpet and go on”, others were overwhelmed and struggled to continue functioning. “It might break them completely.”

Many people were able to switch off their emotions and chose to deal with things cognitively. In the short term, this could help them cope with school stress and the news of their HIV status. But in the long term, this ability was not good because it affected them psychologically.

Lauren Borchers, 1st year BSc, said there should be no distinction between the exam period and any other time of the year. Testing during exams should be allowed.
“The thought that you might be positive [while being unable to get tested] could put more stress than the exam stress,” she said.

Not all students agree, however Anthony Shumba, 3rd year BCom Finance and Management, said the policy is reasonable one. “If a student finds out he or she is HIV positive they could fail and their lives could fall apart because of
their status.”


Witsies unimpressed with free flavoured condoms

Witsies are underwhelmed by the new colourful, flavoured condoms which will soon be free from the government.

 This week Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, announced the new condoms after a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council showed that condom use in South Africa had decreased.

 The survey also showed that boys were starting to have sex at a younger age, young people were sleeping around more and becoming less knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS.

SAY “I DO”: Students think twice before doing the deed using Choice condoms. Government hopes this will change with the new condoms.   Photo: Zelmarie Goosen

SAY “I DO”: Students think twice before doing the deed using Choice condoms. Government hopes this will change with the new condoms. Photo: Zelmarie Goosen

But the new condoms are unlikely to make any change to the sex habits of students, according to a number of Witsies approached by Wits Vuvuzela.

 “Choice sucks and they [condoms] stink, so even if they make them colourful and add flavour to them, it won’t make a difference to me, I won’t use them,” according to Zama Mthunzi, 1st year BSc.

 Aurelia Dako, 3rd year BA, said it was better to use bought condoms than the free condoms provided by government. “To me, the difference is that they [government condoms] are free. A person shouldn’t mind spending [money] for their health instead of getting them for free.”

 Young women say they are sometimes reluctant to have sex using the free condoms, even going so far as to stop in the heat of the moment when their man pulls out a Choice condom.

 On the other hand, one young woman said she would not spend money on condoms and that Choice condoms were better quality than those sold in shops.

 Some of the men said they would not mind using the free condoms if they did not have enough money to buy their preferred brands. The price of condoms varies from R12 to R38 for a pack of three. The most popular brand among young people is Durex, according to the students approached.[pullquote] “Choice sucks and they [condoms] stink, so even if they make them colourful and add flavour to them, it won’t make a difference to me”[/pullquote]

 Despite the different colours and the flavours, young people say they still prefer store-bought condoms because of the texture variations like studded, ribbed and ultra-thin, which students claim makes the sex more pleasurable.

 Choice condoms are available in most campus toilets but, in his statement, the minister said students were not using them. Approached for comment, spokesperson to the minister, Joe Maila, said: “We suspect young people prefer fancier condoms so our department wants to make the Choice condoms more appealing, make them cool and funky.”

 The department hoped the rolling out of new condoms would help control increased teenage pregnancy rates and HIV infections.

 Maila said the department would use the same budget it was granted for the current condoms to produce the new ones. “Even if we use one cent more than our initial budget, this is an investment, we are preventing the spread of disease and creating productive, healthy members of society.”

 Currently 23% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV and only 14.5% of males between the same ages, according to the HSRC survey, quoted in Business Day. The infection rate among teenage girls between 15 and 19 is eight times higher.

 The condoms will be distributed for free at South Africa’s universities and Further Education and Training (FET) colleges.


Health workers with attitude

A GAY man who went for a routine HIV test in the Johannesburg CBD was told by a doctor to remember “Sodom and Gomorrah” and that “the mouth is meant for eating only”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the man shared his story in a group discussion at a health cafe at Wits recently. The health café was held to educate media practitioners on writing correctly about issues surrounding HIV. 

“I don’t know the name of the clinic but it’s in the Johannesburg CBD inside Carlton Centre,” the man said. While waiting for the results, he asked the doctor about the risks of contracting HIV through oral sex.

“He [the doctor] giggled and asked if I was a Christian. I said yes and that I believed in God. And then he said that I would remember then what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah. I was shocked. He told me that people back then were behaving like that. That’s why God burnt the town. He told me that the mouth is meant for eating only. I was totally taken aback by this.”

During the discussions, journalists from different media houses mentioned that they were reluctant to get tested because of the “bad attitude” displayed by nurses and doctors in conducting tests.

Another journalist,  who identified himself only as Thabo, said he had also gone to a clinic for an HIV test and the nurse on duty passed a snide remark, suggesting that he had come for a test because he had been having unprotected sex.

“She then asked me to take out my penis so that she could see if there was evidence of a disease.  She looked at it and told me that I was fine.”

Some women in the group complained they had been subjected to HIV tests without their consent while pregnant.

Dr Sindi Van Zyl, who specialises in HIV with Anova, encouraged patients to know their rights in the face of violation by medical personnel and overcome all barriers by getting tested for HIV. She said “angry nurses” intimidated men from clinics, but they should just go and get tested anyway.

Van Zyl added that foreigners should be able to access anti-retroviral drugs. A memo was passed in 2008 to this effect.

Melissa Meyer, HIV and AIDS media project manager with Anova, said patients should not just accept bad treatment from nurses and doctors.  “The same way you go to a restaurant and say: ‘This is not what I ordered,’ is the same way you should react when you get bad service at clinics.”

The HIV and AIDS Act of 2006 stipulates that “an HIV test on another person shall not be undertaken, except with the informed consent of the other person”.

Sex at “a certain age”


Catherine Burns, whose research interests include the history of sex, says people do not like to think of older people as sexual beings. She says older people are portrayed as being romantic or affectionate, never sexual. Photo:

Rosalind Jacobs cartwheeled onto the stage in the opening scene of her autobiographical play That Certain Age.

 She said she used to cartwheel everywhere as a child. It made her feel alive, proud and beautiful. Jacobs, who is 59, said she now looks “like a cushion that’s lost its stuffing. Breasts dangle hopelessly as if they just got tired of hanging on, as if they too had lost their sense of purpose.”

 Jacobs’ play, which was staged at Wits on Monday August 20 as part of Drama for Life’s Sex Actually festival, highlighted the issues of ageing and sexuality.

After the performance, the all-female audience of five discussed body image and sex in what Jacobs called the “invisible age” , when a woman is not yet “a lovely old little lady” but is no longer considered a “hot babe”.

The discussion was moderated by Dr Catherine Burns of the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research (WISER). Burns, who studies the history of sex, said people did not like to think of older people as sexual beings.

She described the strong reaction her acquaintances had to The Mother, one of the few films which showed older people having sex.  In Roger Michell’s 2003 film, Daniel Craig plays a 32-year-old man who falls in love and has a sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s 65-year-old mother, played by Anne Reid.

Burns said: “Many people have told me it’s the most revolting film they have ever seen … They had to turn it off or leave the cinema because it disgusted them.”

The idea may be unpalatable to some, but older people are sexually active and they risk getting sexually transmitted infections. Burns said older women were vulnerable to HIV infection because their vaginal tissue was thinner and more likely to tear.

Older women might also be invisible to HIV/AIDS awareness campaigners, who often targeted the youth. They might lack knowledge about condom use.

She said negotiating condom use might also be difficult, since menopausal women could no longer tell their partners they wanted to prevent pregnancy.   

Audience member and Wits graduate Margaret Fish said: “Many older people don’t feel that they have a choice if they want to keep that man. And how are they going to say: ‘I’m afraid you might give me a disease?’”

South Africans tight-lipped about taboo subjects

Just a month after the South African government started releasing inmates due to the presidential pardon two months ago, at least 43 are back in jail.

A report distributed yesterday, June 12, by SAPA quoted the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) saying it was already in custody of a fraction of the former inmates it began releasing in “controllable groups” on May 14.

A policeman searches suspects in Hillbrow. PICTURE: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters/Sidney Morning Herald

The government plans to release up to 35,000 inmates this year as part of a special remission announced by President Zuma during Freedom Day celebrations on April 27.

The government said part of the reason for releasing the inmates was to decongest the country’s prisons, while other reports said it was to mark Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela winning South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994.

Spotlight on crime

While the DCS did not reveal the number of prisoners released within the first month, the fact that at least 43 of the former inmates have already been re-arrested once casts the spotlight on the crime situation in the country.

Studies on the crime rate in South Africa show it has dropped marginally from a time when the country had the highest per capita rates of murder and rape, the second highest rate of robbery and violent theft and the fourth highest rates of serious assault and sexual offences among the 110 whose crime levels are tracked by Interpol. However, the crime rates remain high.

South Africa's crime statistics ahead of the 2010 World Cup. IMAGE by Japan Probe

So numerous are crime incidences even today that criminality seems to have become a part of the daily routine. Today, only the most outrageous of crimes reach the table of national discourse.

Outrage over rape

In April, when a video surfaced of the gang rape of a Soweto teenager, it was widely condemned due to the despicable nature of not just the multiple rapes of the mentally-illvictim, but of the fact that the rapists had the audacity to record and circulate a video of their actions.

The chief executive of Proudly South Africa, Leslie Sedibe, asked a poignant question, “What have we become when children rape children and we as fellow South Africans stand by and watch something so evil, cruel, callous and inhumane? Even watching such a video after the fact is atrocious and abominable.”

Yet crime is not the only social issue that the country seems not to have opted to face head-on and eliminate. Several others continue to blight the national conscience but seem to have been swept under the carpet.

Racism clouds debate

Early this year, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) published several posters of semi-naked couples in embrace, with the words beside them reading, “In our future, you wouldn’t look twice”. The pictures caused a storm merely because they depicted a white and black couple.

One of the controversial DASO images

With many people not eager to discuss racism, debate on many significant issues in the country is often derailed by claims of racism, as happened when the ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe described “The Spear” art-piece by Brett Murray as racist.
That label forced Murray to defend himself in an affidavit against accusations of racism, galvanised followers of the ANC into demonstrations that were interpreted as a form of bullying, and diverted the national conversation from the issues to a subject few people are really comfortable talking about.

Silence on HIV/AIDS

Similarly, South Africa has failed to curb the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus because of a deep-seated fear to confront the issue and peel off the layers of secrecy enveloping it.

More than five years after the first president of independent South Africa Nelson Mandela first revealed that his son Makgatho died of AIDS, and more than a decade after Judge Edwin Cameron announced his status, the stigma surrounding those who suffer from AIDS remains so high that the family of a famous footballer, Thabang Lebese, initially tried to hide the cause of his death even though he’d wanted it to be known.

By sweeping many of these taboo subjects under the carpet, South Africa is likely to be prolonging public discussion on problems that can only be overcome when the nation confronts them and seeks solutions in the open.