Stephen Rothenburg  
Zanele Mashinini

Stephen Rothenburg

For the last ten years I've been working in the media unit of the Gauteng AIDS Programme of the Provincial government. This brought me into contact with many NGOs, Community organizations and Religious groups. I've also been painting and trying simply to recall and make some sense of my journey from childhood to the present. I found some definitions of love and the most reasonable I came across went something like; love is the will to extend one's self to nurture one's own and another's spiritual awareness and growth.

I grew up in Port Elizabeth and the Karroo, partially wrapped in the goldfish bowl of Catholicism which neatly positioned us on the highway to heaven with all non Catholics headed for Limbo or Hell. But we were not alone. In Ladybrand, in the Free State we were outsiders and only accepted after one incident in the general dealer when the store owner asked my mother if she would please take a shoe off and show him her foot. She did. His response was “Here God, jy het tone net soos ons!” My mother's complete set of toes gained us a limited acceptance. We didn't have cloven hooves. We were separated by our different religions.

We had in common our families, our gardens, our animals; our identities which could grow within the bowl of our dorp. In a one shop town, people meet at the general dealer. Now, identities seem somewhat dimmed by the ubiquity of mass media and mass desire.

Now AIDS. Identities are shattered by untimely death of our youth; working parents sentenced not to see their children grow. Orphans at the mercy of public compassion, budget and planning. Our sense of love and value of intimacy is laid bare by our fractured response to this AIDS epidemic. Laid bare by our inability to join together; to discover common morality, agreed treatments and proper standards of care for our infected, our dying and our orphans. If we are at war; pitted against a sexually transmitted virus; we seem morally ill equipped and prepared to defend ourselves against acquired immune deficiency syndrome .

Condoms alone are not sufficient defence. We need a moral sense that encompasses the causes of our sexual behaviour. We acknowledge that HIV rates are much higher in our informal settlements. We acknowledge that infection rates among unemployed people are very high. We acknowledge that malnourished people succumb more quickly to AIDS. Our response is poor.

Condoms alone are not sufficient defence. We exist in a society where overwhelmingly women are sexually abused, economically abused, carry the burden of childcare and the burden of caring for our sick and dying. We will suffer AIDS until we all recognize and respect the rights of all people but especially women to protect themselves from infection. The right to safe sex. The right to say no to sex.

Many men claim the right to have a wife and lovers. Few find the courage or feel obliged to disclose their unprotected sexual encounters to their wives and thereby leave them open to infection. The level of adult and child rape leaves many women very fearful for their children and themselves. The myth that virgin rape is a cure for HIV infection; so horrible that it leaves many of us stunned into silence or baying for vigilante justice.

The reality of male rape seems hidden by the refusal of many to acknowledge that it happens and by a great silence about it in our mass media. Is it true that men who have been raped feel more ashamed of their “loss of manhood” than outraged by sexual assault?

Traditionally we have found moral guidance and comfort in religion. Today many Africanist, Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious groups have found common cause in their programmes of AIDS care and poverty relief. I meet many township youth groups whose beliefs and values are manifested in community involvement and action not only around AIDS care but also dealing with education, job opportunities and broad community issues. And, the groups of school kids who arrive at our office wanting to start AIDS awareness in their school. Their personal experience and awareness of AIDS in their communities has led them to learn, to talk, to engage with their peers to raise community awareness and knowledge and to be able to combat the weird and evil myths that feed off ignorance in our social landscape. I'm very aware of a sense that many school children today seem so much more confidant, better informed and freer to form and express opinions and less oppressed than ever before.

Growing up in the puritanical 50's and early 60's most of us were not just prohibited from but unable to talk about sex. The actual knowledge and vocabulary was absent. The only public adult references to sex I heard were dirty jokes and a blanket prohibition from the pulpit. The censorship of sexual information was mirrored in the censorship of political news and the self censorship practiced by my community to enable us to live the lie of apartheid.

Growing up within the culture of Christian Nationalism was not only repressive it was simply and viciously insane. Most whites were unable to be intimate with others because we hid our thoughts even from ourselves. Many of us lacked the basic information on which to build serious thoughts as tools for our personal development. We lived many lies, reaped the financial rewards and blamed Black people and Communists for the gathering clouds on our colonial horizon and paid the price in denying our humanity by fierce censoring of our feelings and thoughts. As adults many of us are unable to give positive guidance to our children about sexuality or the morality of politics.

Apartheid taught us, me specifically, to fear and mistrust people; people who thought differently and to fear for and mistrust myself. But, my life experience taught me that my Black nanny was loving, comforting and a constant companion; that my uncle who spoke out about politics and specifically against apartheid was a kind and gentle man. So, many of us white children of grand apartheid grew up with a set of imposed beliefs and a set of life experiences that were constantly at odds.

Many English speaking South Africans absolved themselves of any responsibility for political developments and looked down their noses at Afrikaaners blaming them for apartheid. But we also depended on Afrikaaner ideology to protect us from the necessity of examining our own lives and coming to our own decisions. We lived lives of extreme and mainly unconscious selfishness. For our own privilege we happily pretended ignorance. Appearances took priority over intimacy. Few of us were able to love; to extend ourselves to honestly nurture our own or anyone else's spiritual awareness and growth. Few of us.

In 1968 I fled South Africa; fled from the military; fled from the mindset of apartheid; believing there had to be more; more what I was not sure of. I found more in London. Certainly more gentleness. For many young people from around the world, the short summer of liberal politics of Europe in the 1960's offered escape routes from oppressive military regimes and the opportunity to explore personal and social alternatives.

In 1982 arriving back here I was convinced that running from problems was no solution. In 1968 South Africa promised me military prison; in 1982 returning home offered opportunity to work in the growing NGO sector opposing the government. Working on a publication called “Learn and Teach” brought me into contact with South Africans I had read about but never really spoken to. The feeling of being on the good side of the struggle gave me comfort, gave meaning to my life; it gave me courage. For the first time I felt I was actually a South African.

Now we are free to express our feelings about Love, sex and intimacy and our national context. There's Gospel, Hip Hop, Rap and Kwaito. And, such arguments over the lyrics. And many of us depend on our daily emotional fix from a range of Soapies. So while many of us are still unable to talk about our emotions, many of us are able to listen to and watch these new emotional products. And we are a nation aware of the power and danger of politics; we have strong civil society organizations. Strong enough to force the delivery of Anti retrovirals.

The population density, economic development and media industry of Gauteng all make for easy communication. The advertising industry is sexually suggestive, puritanical and seldom factually informative. Sex is used as a cultural commodity that by association successfully sells products and services. Sex is made glamorous, designed and portrayed as heterosexual and the reward for economic advantage. Choice of car proclaims to the believers in the aspirational society just how virile the buyer is.

That advertising speaks and sells primarily to those rich enough to conspicuously consume is a problem. By omission it excludes and develops a cynicism towards mass media in the great majority of people who cannot afford the luxury of conspicuous consumption. It presented problems of credibility for all the AIDS campaigners in the late 80s and early 90s and lead to some very interesting interventions such as the Soul City TV programme and workshops aimed at educating print and electronic media people about AIDS. It also led to the development of the anti-advert – the 30 second radio message that informed and challenged listeners to respond.

In the 1990s many non governmental and community organisations began campaigning and educating about “Lifeskills” and sex education. The sheer volume of information being published and broadcast gave legitimacy and growing public acceptance to the diverse campaigns to break the silence around sexuality.

The early provincial response was based on simple assumptions. The imagery of death and guilt would not work. Sex had to be brought out of the cupboard and talked about publicly. The initial response was to get public attention – we approached YFM with radio messages they were not sure they would be allowed to broadcast (1995). Radio messages like - “Lay back lover and let me roll this condom on you” (and others) shocked some, amused others and got a lot of youth attention.

Those early messages put condoms and the idea of safe sex on air through a station that was building a large youth following in Gauteng. YFM even became a condom distribution point for youth. We got attention because we were talking about sex in a culture where sex was rarely spoken about unless in jokes or graffiti. We got attention because we were informative and considered rude. We also got attention because we spoke about sex on radio and in print using the language and the voices of our intended audience. We talked to Gauteng youth through some of their favourite DJs using township slang and township voices.

We published in Exit magazine which was probably the first up-front gay publication in Gauteng. We asked Exit to put together a safe sex ad for gay cruising clubs. They produced “How to butt-fuck safely” as an insert in their paper and a flier in clubs. By accident a copy of the flier was dropped in the health department lift and picked up by a government official and religious minister who was outraged that this was coming out of what he believed to be a “Christian government office”. When shown a copy of Exit he literally collapsed in his chair saying he had no idea that such things went on and that we were probably right in what we were doing –but that it was deeply shocking to him.

When we first published detailed information about AIDS prevention, care and Support in Beeld, an Afrikaans daily newspaper, their readers response jammed their switchboard the next morning. Overwhelmingly the respondents were happy or “grateful” to at last get real, detailed information in a publication they trusted.

You do need different messages for different groups in society. We were reaching youth through the medium of YFM riding on the cultural credibility of a radical youth station with a cult following. We were reaching an older audience through KAYA and both these stations hosted and promoted AIDS information and debate on their own account. Exit newspaper published to a largely underground and only recently legalized community. The sex we were talking about was not an aspirational and recreational cultural commodity nor did it conform to the genteel allusions of the then SABC.

Sex was no longer only a cultural product of the South African advertising industry. The reality of HIV infection primarily through sex was anathema to an industry mining the images of desire and virility. We were beginning to talk seriously to a variety of distinct audiences about the absolute importance of becoming aware of HIV and the primary importance of condoms as the means of protection. The AIDS campaigners realized the importance of involving our audiences.

We developed contacts across the townships and informal settlements of Gauteng. The almost legendary “Mandela” of Orange Farm informal settlement. Mandla, an ex Umkontho We Sizwe combatant started AIDS awareness groups in shebeens and schools in Orange farm. He took copies of our early radio ads and pamphlets to groups in Orange Farm for criticism on both content and style. He was very aware that advertising excluded the poor, the gay and generally most black people. But the early days of our democracy had given birth to new socially conscious and bold radio stations and publications that enjoyed street credibility with their diverse audiences.

The media practitioners of the new consciousness sought us out and we were receptive (they weren't getting a lot of conventional advertising in those early days) and we had budget to spend. We had different experiences with the established media. One prestigious magazine targeting business and political leadership rejected an advert simply because we used the word “prophylactic”. They said it was too rude and that their magazine was read by the President, who, they feared, could be offended by such crudity. (prophylactic – intended to prevent disease; preventative medicine; N. American – a condom).

Working on a pamphlet about rape, we included male rape. The responsive from within our department then was to censor it, saying that male rape did not happen. One of the big difficulties is not just what to say but finding the best way to say it. It's no good being right if you express it in a way which is objectionable or even just unfamiliar to those in positions of authority in government, media institutions or large sections of people. The provincial government AIDS programme had to talk to the rest of provincial government as a matter of priority.

In the 1990s many non governmental and community organisations began campaigning and educating about “Lifeskills” and sex education. The sheer volume and diversity of information being published and broadcast gave legitimacy and some public acceptance to our diverse campaigns.

In our media campaigns we all started by trying to get people's attention. Our context was a growing AIDS epidemic and initially our content was sexual behaviour (preventing infections). In the mid nineties there were no nationally or provincially co -ordinated campaigns. There were few accepted common wisdoms and little agreement on what to say about AIDS and how to say it. There were isolated organizations that ran scare campaigns of death, despair and guilt. Also on the approach to Beaufort West I saw a billboard with a one word message “Blowjob” – try explaining that to an inquisitive seven year old learning to read.

People speak about “the AIDS sector” and the “AIDS industry”. What have we achieved with all these organizations, the thousands of meetings, the diverse media campaigns?

We distribute over ten million condoms each month. Each year we distribute over five million pamphlets talking about preventing HIV infection; how to care for people infected with HIV and their families; how to support orphans and families affected by AIDS. Collectively, I believe, we have raised consciousness. Still the number of infections rises.

Is it possible to achieve a change in sexual behaviour in a society? How does awareness translate into changing behaviour? How do we within our often harsh economic and social realities find the time to reflect on our own behaviour? How do we find time and inspiration to value ourselves enough to reflect and act to make ourselves more loving people? Who is so mature to be able to lock out lust if we're not carrying a condom?

I think we talk and keep on thinking and talking and learn to listen and to focus. Not only about the facts of the epidemic but about sexuality, love, fear, anger. I think we motivate for greater poverty alleviation, more job creation, more housing. We motivate for greater emotional literacy. We need to learn to fight cynicism in ourselves. We need to learn to live with love. It is not enough to stand aside and criticize. We need for our own sanity to be involved in the campaigns, the attempts to change the ways we behave towards each other. We need to never give up.


Stephen Rothenburg has since 1996 been employed in the media unit of the Gauteng AIDS Programme working on community outreach campaigns, print and radio. His initial studies were in the visual arts, completing a Fine arts diploma in Visual Arts Research in Johannesburg (1964), and a Post Diploma in fine arts, at the St Martin's School of Art in London (1970). Between 1982 to 1990 he was involved in the establishment of Learn & Teach magazine where he was a contributing photographer, writer and responsible for design and production of materials aimed establishing appropriate language level. The programme worked closely with the emerging Trade Unions in producing media for them.