Post the successful launch and completion of its inaugural Leadership Academy which took place in South Africa from June 1-14, 2015, TGP’s Leadership Academy Students have embarked on a journey to reflect and internalize their learnings within the context of their involvement with our programs in DC.
Here’s a blog from Seamus Roddy, the first in a series shared by our returning athletes, on their experience in South Africa comparing the differences in perception and engagement between the two countries in dealing with HIV/AIDS.
In the 2010 documentary The Other City, Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas says that “AIDS represents humanity’s greatest failures.” Specifically, Vargas refers to the proliferation of HIV/AIDS, which is spurred on by poverty, subpar sexual education, and drug use.
What makes The Other City unique is the focus on how the problems that plague Washington, D.C. – inadequate housing, racially and socioeconomically stratified neighborhoods, governmental incompetence and corruption, and lacking social services – are those failures. D.C.’s HIV/AIDS rate is reflective of generations of mistakes, neglect, and indifference. It is difficult to fathom how those failures could lead to an HIV/AIDS rate as high as D.C.’s. Many Grassroots coaches have witnessed the wide-eyed, surprised reaction of American friends and family when they learn that an estimated 1 in 20 adults in the District are infected with HIV.
During The Grassroot Project Leadership Academy trip to South Africa, sharing D.C.’s AIDS rate did not often solicit the wide-eyed surprise it would in the U.S. We were more often met with a shrug that could be expected from a country in which 1 in 5 adults is estimated to be HIV-positive. Early in the trip, I was standing in a Cape Town department store when a store employee saw the red ribbon on my Grassroots shirt and immediately identified it with HIV/AIDS awareness. It is hard to imagine that happening in D.C. or the U.S. in general – here it has been 20 years since HIV was a “glamour disease,” in vogue to fundraise and build awareness for.
Early on, it was easy to dwell on the differences in HIV/AIDS prevention between South Africa and D.C. South Africans seemed comfortable discussing HIV/AIDS and acknowledging the issues plaguing the country, potentially the legacy of Peace and Reconciliation committees and other fact-finding efforts in the post-Apartheid era. Even The Grassroot Project model, sometimes seen as groundbreaking in the U.S., was typical of the initiatives South African athletes have already taken. Sport for social development was everywhere, with basketball, soccer, and other activities being used to push youths toward healthy lifestyles.
As the trip progressed, however, it became easier to draw parallels between HIV/AIDS in South Africa and in D.C. New HIV infections in South Africa are overwhelmingly concentrated in the poor, black townships. HIV incidence in D.C. is highest in the poor and black Seventh and Eighth Wards. The difference between the gorgeous beach-front estates in Camps Bay and the tin shacks of Khayelitsha – a 40 minute drive – was not unlike the difference between the sweeping lawns and stately colonials of white-bread Northwest D.C. and the dilapidated row houses surrounded by bars-on-the-windows liquor stores in black Anacostia.
Just like some in the U.S. still dismiss HIV as a “gay disease” or a “black disease,” South Africans sometimes categorize HIV as a township disease, a concern for the nation’s black majority but not Afrikaaner or English whites. And, just like The Other City explains about D.C.’s legacy of segregation and neglect for its poor, mainly black residents, South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic is the result of generations of failures – culminating in a segregated, poorly understood disease that feels like an echo of the nation’s not-so-distant apartheid past.
Vargas ultimately says that D.C.’s HIV/AIDS rate is predicated on a “failure to face certain facts about who we are, and what people do. We’re talking about a disease that’s so complex, so stigmatized, that we can’t even begin having conversations at the most basic level. How are we supposed to combat this?”
This question could easily be applied to HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Just like The Grassroot Project in D.C., sport for development organizations in South Africa have answered the question of how to fill this societal vaccum the same way: start talking about who we are, why we have the problems we do, and how to force people to confront our failures while striving toward an HIV-free future.