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

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

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
14 best coat hooks

Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?