HIV&AIDS responses in South Africa have shown us that history, power, context and hypocrisy are crucial to understanding why we have largely failed to understand our epidemic(s) and respond effectively or creatively to them. In particular we have not responded well to the needs of young people.
The CSA has always been interested in working with young people. This is not only because we are based at a university, where future leaders are produced, but because we believe young people have been poorly served by HIV&AIDS interventions. Through our work we have come to understand how our whole society has been poorly served.
Young people have been infantilised, subjected to adult power and hypocrisy, lied to and their needs and desires neglected. Many forces have shaped the ways in which young people understand and respond to HIV&AIDS – their families and communities, their education, their culture and how they have been led to think about sexuality, beliefs, attitudes and practices.
Taking an historical perspective, we can see that for young people the life- orientation and life-skill approaches seldom work. Apartheid education, the lack of a critical education, and the current weakening of the education system, have conspired to leave young people in a kind of intellectual limbo, prepared neither for the real world nor the world of work, and lacking in social capital.
Young people cannot intellectually engage with their history, and because of global and national economic policies have been left aspiring to material success as an end in itself, yet lacking the tools, or the ethical checks and balances, to attain this. In many ways, the education for young people has been based on adult beliefs, expectations and hopes, rather than on the lived reality of young people.
The CSA engages with young people in a challenging way, enabling them to think critically and rigorously about identities, sexualities, culture and citizenship. It allows them to understand and critique leadership, democracy, power and accountability. This understanding that we gain from young people then informs our community outreach, and our notions of legal capital and social justice.
The CSA’s collaborations with international colleagues, for example through its work with CHARI – the Critical HIV and AIDS Research Initiative – have enabled us to better understand our own epidemic(s). While context is everything, there is much that can be gained from reflecting on similarities and differences. All epidemics share a history of power abuses and struggles, have had to (re)examine the role of context and were forced to challenge social and structural hypocrisies.
Epidemics also have unique trajectories and dynamics and it is the power of the local which remains ultimately intriguing. We will remain fascinated and intrigued by our own locale(s), hoping that through our work we will find ways to live through and beyond HIV&AIDS, and emerge a stronger society underpinned by sexual, personal and social integrity.