Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Breaking the Silence


One of South Africa’s most senior and eminent businesspeople, Clem Sunter, writes movingly of the AIDS crisis in News24:

We recently witnessed the huge coverage given to the Air France Airbus that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred and twenty-eight people perished in that disaster. Putting our Aids statistics into perspective, the equivalent is four airliners full of mostly young South Africans plunging into the sea every day of every month of every year. And yet silence accompanies their death because they die individually and the majority are from deprived backgrounds.

We should be ashamed and we should do everything to break the sound of silence. We should talk openly about ways to change sexual behaviour to minimise transmission of the virus. We should get the advertising agencies involved since it is their speciality to change behaviour. We should encourage people to get themselves tested and if they test positive seek the appropriate medical treatment. We should focus on compliance with the pill regimen and the fact that even when you feel better you can’t stop taking the pills.

Finally we should openly praise all those heroes and heroines who have dedicated their lives to caring for the victims of the epidemic. They deserve national medals for their bravery and compassion.

(My emphasis.)

Four planes a day crashing into the sea, four planes a day, filled with young people who should be economically active, taking care of their children and their parents and living life. It’s hard to stomach, which is why people don’t talk about it, but it is a tragedy on a giant scale – and one which will come to haunt the South African politicians who messed about for too long toying with dissident science and refusing to commit to providing people with the drugs.

It is easier to mourn one plane than many, as we harden ourselves to horror and stop hearing it. One of the things I’m trying to do in the book I’m writing is to show how AIDS has become a fact of life in South Africa, but how, at the same time, it is a deeply personal and excruciating tragedy for those who die and those who are left behind. Each story is worth telling.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

10 thoughts on “Breaking the Silence

  1. it’s an important subject, Charlotte. Everyone should be talking about it and everyone isn’t, so someone has to start. Way to go!

  2. I totally agree! It is a disgrace and also a sad insight to realize that people cannot mourn the terrible tragedy unfolding in southern Africa, in which millions of children are being made orphans far too soon.

  3. Clem couldn’t be more right! People are more horrified by a plane crash as we are unable to place the blame and we can relate to the event as being one of our worst nightmares. To look at the AIDS/HIV statistics is frightning but society is quick to place blame on the shoulders of the infected person assuming that it is their fault for having unprotected sex and questioning their past behaviours while carrying the “it won’t happen to me” attitude! To break the silence is important and campaigns like “LIVE LIFE” and “It Starts With You” are part of educating South Africans about HIV/AIDS, but this still excludes those living in the rural areas who do not have access to the media and are left with misguided information and “myths”.

  4. It does need to be talked about here. Our domestic help can talk to us about it but is scared to talk to her family in case they reject her. The conspiracy of silence is still strong and we are hardly even rural, so close to Cape Town. Luckily the clinic she goes to is now very good, but it has only been for the last year or two, that it has been in place.

  5. That is such a sobering and devastating analogy. I think part of it is that sheer overwhelming scale – people seem to have an inbuilt safety switch that flicks on when the enormity of suffering and death is too great to comprehend. And it’s unhelpful, because there’s a tendency then to just pretend it’s not happening, like the monster you can’t see because he’s standing right next to you and you’re only as tall as his toe.

  6. Thanks Charl for making it so striking. It has often irritated me that we are encouraged to weigh lives differently, when we honour some of the Dead, but the vast Rest is ignored. A life is a life, hey.

  7. What a statistic. What horror. The comparison to the airliners makes it seem so much more real, I’m sure that is the point. And that is just South Africa. What would the image be if we started counting the epidemic world wide?

    It needs to be talked about everywhere. One of the places where AIDS is increasing the most is in the American small town where the silly teenagers think they can’t get it because they aren’t gay. How foolish they are, how in denial.

  8. a friend of mine also posited this recently – why do we get so caught up in one small disaster, yet tune out the millions of deaths each day caused by the ravages of war, hunger, disease?

    in the end, i reckon because the unexpected deaths of a few are easier to grieve guiltlessly than the doomed thousands that we could/should work harder to prevent

  9. I wonder whether there isn’t (though I appreciate the very specific and terrible circumstances in SA) an echo of a general complacency – certainly it’s as if it’s an almost forgotten disease for many people in London – and by all accounts, STDs are rising steeply again in the capital.

    Though there’s that general tendency for the media to move on as a story gets ‘old’ – Darfur, Burma, Palestine…Each one has its 15 minutes. It’s as if the world is too terrible for us to be able to look at it squarely other than one tiny piece at a time.

  10. People here in London think HIV and AIDS is soooo last century – it’s not even worth a flicker of a headline anymore. Which probably explains why the rate of infections is climbing steadily. The same goes for South Africa – the story is old, there is nothing new to tell so the media does not cover it and we stop talking about it. And if you are one of the few people who has not been totally desensitised, contemplating the enormity of it (as this example by Clem Sunter nicely illustrates) makes you feel sick with powerlessness.

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