Zuma’s HIV distortions preposterous

For a start he is basing a defence on “culture”, that in Zulu culture a man cannot leave an aroused woman dissatisfied. This sort of defence of culture comes up all the time whenever someone wants to keep women in an inferior position, or explain away attitudes that most modern societies frown upon. Culture is not something set in stone. Culture is not what one’s grandparents did, or how one’s ancestors lived in some mythical golden age. Culture is how people live now. Cultures are dynamic, not static, and either adjust to cope with the modern world and its opportunities or dangers, or die. Mr Zuma himself, to take an extreme example, would be rightly incandescent with anger if some Afrikaner said that because his forefathers treated blacks worse than dogs then modern Afrikaners should do the same. He would, quite correctly and no doubt vehemently, tell such an Afrikaner that this was totally unacceptable and that the culture had to change, and change immediately. Just as the 20th century saw major changes in cultural attitudes towards race – and racism was an aberration in human cultures lasting just three centuries from the start of the intense West African slave trade to the end of colonialism – so the same century saw a major change in cultural attitudes towards women. Just to take one example: in 1900 women were allowed to vote in just two countries; in 2000 most electorates were willing to accept women as heads of state. Women are people, and it is no good trying to distort old cultures to justify poor treatment of them. And trying to impose the cultures of a flourishing pastoral economy on a modern urban culture will result in serious distortions. The old pre-colonial pastoral cultures of east and southern Africa gave women far more effective rights and privileges than is generally realised when old formal rules are applied in the quite different peasant and urban economies. The second and serious disservice Mr Zuma has done is in his off-hand treatment of the dangers of HIV infection, a scourge of Africa and a danger to the rest of the world. He knows, and he must have known from all his work as a leading figure in South Africa’s anti-Aids campaigns, just how easy it is to contract the virus in unprotected sexual contacts and just how impossible it is to contract it otherwise. Knowing this he decided to have unprotected sexual relations with a woman he believed to be HIV-positive and then tried to wash away the results of his indiscretion in a hot shower. He must know that any transmission will take place during the actual sexual act. By the time he was in the shower he was infected if the virus managed to pass through. He is passing quite the wrong message to others by giving his reasons for a shower. In fact his insistence on discussing his shower might well see a return to stupid and wrong myths that made the lives of HIV positive people such a misery at one point, when people refused to shake hands with them or rushed to the taps as soon as they had. Mr Zuma is facing serious criminal charges and is entitled to give the best defence he can. But he should not be daft about it.

April 2006
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