Desperate In Durban

I am back in the UK after about three weeks away. It was generally a good trip. The other day I was listening to the news and was hugely amused by a very South African item. A road block was set up in the Cape in the run-up to National Woman’s Day. This is a public holiday and is taken very seriously. The initiative was taken by women: female police officers, community leaders and so on – powerful women one and all. They were, it seems, effective; catching vehicles without road tax or that that were not roadworthy and arresting drunk drivers. I had to smile when the (female) announcer ended the piece by saying: “the roadblock was ‘manned’ by…”.

There is much going on in South Africa and some of it is really good. Last week President Zuma made a surprise visit to the little town of Balfour in Mpumalanga where there have been protests over non-delivery of services. It was so unexpected that the ANC mayor, who goes by the delightful name of Lefty Tsotetsi, had already knocked off the day. The press reported that his secretary dropped her lunch at the sight of the President walking into the council offices. It was 3.30 in the afternoon which begs the question as to why the mayor had gone and what was the secretary doing eating lunch at that time of day.

The Mayor was hastily summoned back to the office. The Mail and Guardian interviewed him and his municipal manager and got a lot of prevarication and banality. To quote: “The function of the municipality is contained in the constitution. It focuses more on basic services, so issues that pertain to health, education, safety and security are not in the competency of the municipal offices”. There are many challenges over service delivery and growing frustration about the slow pace, so it is good to see the politicians taking this seriously. Indeed one of the other senior ANC leaders Tokyo Sexwale, spent a night in an informal settlement.

During the two weeks I was in Durban HEARD hosted a number of meetings that I was able to attend. One interesting meeting was on HIV/AIDS in cities. A striking statistic bandied about was that there are more HIV infected people in Durban than there are in the whole of Brazil. Having checked the numbers and found that in 2003 there were 660 000 infections in Brazil I suspect this may not be true and it is being thrown about as a good sound bite. However what is certain is in Southern Africa AIDS is an urban epidemic. Ironically this may be a good thing because it allows us to put service delivery in place. I was not the first to suggest that the project we develop be called “Sex in the Cities”. The agenda is being driven by UNAIDS, Southern Africa AIDS Trust and HEARD.

The cities meeting was held at the Balmoral Hotel on the Durban beachfront. If the room had a window then we could have seen the surf, but it was an internal dungeon. Although the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day we sat in a dark room. The air-conditioning had two settings: freezing cold and airless and stuffy.

There was also a small meeting on designing interventions for schools. It is clear that older female children (or learners, as we call them in South Africa) are very vulnerable to infection. I think that with the right environment in schools it will be possible to begin making changes, because educational establishments can do so much. They can be places of safety, pick up on social issues and provide food. In Swaziland school and early childhood development are core policy areas needing attention.

The one issue that I want to work on is the role of faith based interventions. It seems to me that there are real issues about religious organizations being involved in prevention because of the nature of sex, sexuality and what they are prepared to accept as norms. Perhaps only the Catholics – who have the possibility of forgiveness on earth – can deal with this, and as we all know their view of condoms is unhelpful. So here is my thought, it is a P x problem. P is the probability of something being ‘wrong’. So having sex before marriage is wrong, using a condom is wrong. P x P= P2 which is of course worse that P + P=2P. Add additional issues and the P value goes up exponentially P x P x P=P3. This is really something we need to consider in our messaging and perhaps in who does the interventions!

One initiative I had not heard of before has a catchy slogan: “Fifty/fifteen”. The goal of this would be to halve the number of infections by 2015, the year of the Millennium Development goals. That would be a significant achievement, although would still not stop the epidemic.

When I am in Durban I support local theatre. I got tickets for three shows and went to two. The first was a stand-up comedian at a theatre called The Rumbelow. This is an odd place in a former white working class suburb called Umbilo. The theatre is in an old M.O.T.H. hall – this stands as the Memorable Order of the Tin Hats. It is an organization that was set up after the First World War for ex-servicemen. It was, of course, a totally white organization and was a source of social cohesion and halls for this particular group! The hall and grounds are quite substantial and patrons are encouraged to come and braai in the grounds before the show, and are seated at tables rather than in rows in the theatre.
The comedian, Mark Banks, had a go at various sectors of society – from poor white beggars, who always start off with ‘let me tell you my story”, to the ANC women’s’ league via politicians and budget airlines (people who travel on these should be taking the bus!!). He did a good routine on geckoes and how to get rid of them. There were four of us in the group. None of us knew quite what to expect and we had not eaten. At the end of the evening (9pm) we tried to find a restaurant but all their kitchens were closed! We ended up with take-away pizzas and even then ours were the last pizzas out of the oven.

The second show was also at a supper theatre the Barnyard at Gateway shopping centre. Gateway is a monument to mammon. Durban has beaches aplenty with great surf. Gateway has a mechanical wave! You can ride a board while looking at the real thing less than a kilometer away. The show was called ‘LM Radio’ – the first ‘pirate’ radio to broadcast into South Africa. This was based in Lourenco Marques as Maputo was known under Portuguese rule. Apart from the old tunes they played the jingles and adverts. The station closed in 1975, one of the side effects of the Portuguese revolution that brought down the Salazar and lead to the independence of Mozambique and Angola. A scan of the audience showed that most of us had listened to the station in our youth. Older white people! The music was great.

The show I did not go to was an Athol Fugard play ‘Master Harold and the Boys’. The reason is that it is a serious and rather depressing play about the relationship between a youngish white boy and two middle aged black men who work for his father. I think it would have been difficult, but I do need to see it.

Durban was incredibly beautiful. It is a magnificent time of year. One of my colleagues described it as: “the time of year when I want to kiss the sky”. Soon it will be spring and the jacaranda trees will begin to blossom.

I left Durban and flew to Johannesburg where I met with one of the people who is conducting the mid-term review of HEARD. She needed to interview me ‘formally’, and it was good to be asked some searching questions. I then hopped on the plane from Joburg to London, an SAA flight which does not have the range of movies that I expected. The purser commented, “I am really sorry we have a rubbish video system on the airbus 200’s, most people (that is people in business class I think) catch the earlier flight to London because of this”.

This ticket was bought with air miles. I have been a member of the SAA Voyager programme for many years and had never succeeded in spending miles. I was determined to manage this time, with about 460 000 miles it seemed silly not to. So I went to the SAA office and it was extremely simple and they could not have been more helpful. The payment required was for the airport taxes and this came for R5000. However my last trip to London on SAA was marked by a non-functional video system and a strong letter of complaint was duly sent off to them. They responded by sending a voucher worth £150 for future travel, so I only had to pay R3000.


Sadly most of my reading over the past couple of weeks has been work related. I bought myself a copy of Lord of the Rings. On the bookshelf in Durban are the first two books of the trilogy but not the third. This story is my comfort reading, which means that if I don’t know what to read I will pick it up. However missing book three was proving to be increasingly frustrating.

There is an excellent report by the British All Parliamentary Group on HIV/AIDS called “The Treatment Time bomb” which asks some of the difficult questions about how we are going to manage to provide treatment to the many millions of people who need it.