In South Africa, sport and surfing is making Waves for Change in the fight against HIV

After a turbulent history, stigma still surrounds Aids in the Rainbow nation

Related Topics

It was a weekend back in 2008 when I found myself at an NGO function somewhere in Khayelitsha township, the vast sprawl of shacks and low-grade concrete housing encamped on the edge of Cape Town’s CBD. I’d been in South Africa no more than a week. I’d come to work on the vineyards and learn a trade that might one day keep me from the English winter.

The host NGO was concerned with HIV care and before me stood a woman, perhaps in her late twenties, with a beaming smile. I knew little about HIV. What little I did know was informed mostly by Christmas Campaigns and TV ads.

I remember her vividly, her voice and her eyes in particular, far removed from anything I expected and brimming with confidence and ambition. Within a couple of minutes of our meeting she told me she was HIV+, one of the 30 per cent of women in the township infected with the virus. I began to squirm, taken aback by her openness. She pressed forward, taking my hand despite my flinch.

"Don’t worry" she said. "Many people here are also scared".

Later that night, reflecting on the meeting, I remember being struck that my poor understanding of HIV wasn't much different from that of the people of South Africa, who live with the virus daily and should understand it better.


South Africa is at the apex of the worlds HIV pandemic. Of the 34 million HIV positive people in the world, 5.6 million of them reside within the rainbow nation. Cosmetically, the nation boasts many of the same hallmarks of its more successful neighbours who have, by and large, reported varying degrees of success in halting new infections.

Huge billboards promote condom use, radio shows promote a “first HIV-Free generation”, clinics – many state funded and more still product of a rich NGO sector – abound, dispensing free HIV testing and life changing anti-retroviral drugs. But still, no victory moment.

The public perception of HIV in South Africa remains precarious. The disastrous Mbeki administration - which denied the existence of the virus, cut funding for ARV drugs and condemned millions of South Africans to death - is survived by a deeply entrenched fear of HIV. A litany of euphemisms and nicknames still follow the virus and are invariably stapled to all affected, confining and condemning them to the margins of society.

Reflecting on my personal encounter in 2008, I wonder if the faceless billboard campaigns and anonymous radio advertisements overseen by Zuma’s increasingly discredited government can do anything to overturn the Mbeki legacy. As Zuma and his party lurch from one scandal to the next, the messages of fidelity and moral austerity his administration peddle are being laughed off, offering little hope of a solution.


But, despite this, there remains reason for optimism. South Africa is a breeding ground for grassroots organisations, often with ideas reaching far above their stations. And it is through many of these organisations that South Africa today finds itself at the epicentre of a new movement, coined " Sport for Development", that is remodelling and repackaging HIV education into programmes capable of breaching the initial stigma and scepticism of the South African public.

From soccer and cricket, to polo and even surfing, the convivial surrounds of the sports field are being exploited to engage vastly different sectors of South African society, and on a mass scale.  The simple tools of honest and open discourse are facilitated by play, with coaches and leaders gaining the trust of their communities and opening discussions on taboo issues that cut right to the bone.

To suggest that Sport is the elixir for a nation’s woe might be trite, but key leaders and thinkers including Nelson Mandela himself have attributed the power of sport to effect change. South Africa has been a nation adrift for some time now, its problems growing around it. As with any team, strong leadership will be needed to turn the public tide. Whether this comes from the football fields, a chance meeting at an NGO function, or the halls and chambers of the ANC’s Luthuli house, remains to be seen.

Click here to see a short film of the author's Waves for Change programme in action.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner

The two most important parts of Obama’s legacy could be on the brink of collapse, and this time there's no back-up plan

David Usborne
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn