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'Condoms cause AIDS’: poison, prevention and denial in South Africa

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This article presents a critique of the position that South Africans are engaged in a process of collective HIV/AIDS denial. Ex-President Mbeki's well-documented belief that HIV does not lead to AIDS, and that South Africans are not dying of AIDS-related disease, has been used by academics and journalists to explain the widespread public silence around the pandemic. The article argues that the complex social processes employed to create and maintain the avoidance of open conversation around HIV/AIDS are rooted, not in Mbeki's denialism, but rather in conventions through which causes of death can, and cannot, be spoken about. Through case studies of poisonings and public performances by HIV/AIDS educators, the article demonstrates that by invoking public silence and coded language, ‘degrees of separation’ are constructed that create social distance between individuals and the unnatural cause of another's death. Far from a collective denial, acts of public silence and obfuscation should be read as protestations of innocence: attempts to drive a wedge between open, public knowledge of death and potential implication in the increasing number of AIDS-related fatalities. HIV/AIDS prevention policies based on inadequate understandings of this wider context have given rise to the social construction of peer educators – and condoms as their central symbol of prevention – as vectors of the virus.

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