Death before Dying:
Conception of AIDS in the South African Lowveld
International observers have been puzzled by the South African government‟s response to the AIDS pandemic. In an interview with Time magazine, President Thabo Mbeki
questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS, and claimed that a virus cannot cause a syndrome (Karon 2000). He and South Africa‟s Health Minister have argued that AIDS is primarily a problem of nutrition and have rejected data suggesting that AIDS is a major cause of mortality (Sunday Times 9/7/2000). Government
spokespeople initially described anti-retroviral drugs as lethally toxic, and only acceded to make them available through public health care facilities in 2004, after a humiliating series of confrontations with the Constitutional Court (Leclerc-Madlala 2005). This denialist response has not stemmed the rapid spread of HIV. By January 2007, two million South Africans had already died of AIDS-related diseases, and another five and a half million were HIV positive .
Observers often fail to appreciate that impediments to an affective response to the pandemic do not merely exist at the level of government; they also emanate from below. Apart from vocal resistance by the urban-based Treatment Action Campaign, government‟s AIDS policies have encountered little popular opposition. The issue of AIDS hardly influenced voting preferences during the South African elections of 2004 (Strand and Chirambo 2005). Instead, there has been stubborn silence and fatalism in village and township settings. People living with HIV are reluctant to come forward for voluntary counselling and testing, seldom disclose their condition, and often refuse anti-retroviral treatment. In a random survey of 2,500 residents in the mining town of Carltonville, respondents were offered a free and anonymous HIV test, but not a single person accepted (Mkaya-Mwanburi et al 2001). Another survey of 726 HIV positive patients found that 92% had not told anyone of their status (Pawiniski and Laloo 2001). By 2006, 80% of South Africans needing anti-retroviral drugs were not getting them (Thomb 2006). Kin and neighbours have shunned, ostracised and abandond persons living with AIDS (Skhosana 2001, Stein 2003). In one tragic episode during 1998, Gugu Dlamini, a young woman, was stoned to death in KwaZulu-Natal after she announced at an openness campaign that she was living with HIV. Her killers reportedly felt she had „shamed their community‟ .
Social analysts have not adequately explained these responses to AIDS. The literature usually discusses the themes of denial, silence and fear under the label of „stigma‟. Parker and Aggleton (20003) and Farmer (2005) argue that the negative cultural baggage of AIDS arises from processes of domination and exclusion in international power struggles. They insist that in the United States and in Europe privileged social classes have associated AIDS with marginal outsiders such as intravenous drug users, gay men, commercial sex workers, and immigrants from Haiti and Africa . Unfortunately, this approach encourages functionalist explanations that define the effects of AIDS stigma as its cause (Deacon 2005:3). There also appears to be limited „othering‟ in discourses about AIDS victims amongst black South Africans. In the
country, HIV is mainly spread by heterosexual intercourse, and wealthier and poorer people have more or less similar risks of infection (Shisana et al. 2002:9).
A more appropriate approach is to explore the meanings of AIDS before assessing their instrumentality. Analysts such as Posel have, for example, points to the association of AIDS with sexual promiscuity. She argues that „semiotically‟ the virus is „a sign of too much sex, a surfeit which becomes morally contaminating as much as
physically life threatening‟. From this vantage point, the denial of AIDS is a reaction against racist renditions of Africans as „promiscuous carriers of germs‟, who display „uncontrollable devotion to the sin of lust‟ (Posel 2005:138). However, this
association is more likely to explain AIDS denialism amongst South Africa‟s ruling elite, who attach greater weight to African nationalist concerns than commoners do . Ethnographic texts show South Africans to be fairly open about heterosexuality: condoning teenage sexual exploration, accepting illegitimate children, and not allowing adultery to cause too much disruption (Delius and Glaser 2005). Ashforth writes that in contemporary Soweto, sexual licentiousness inspires little shame:
„After all there is hardly a family in the country that does not have children
giving birth to children, sons being sought to support their offspring, or fathers
finding lost progeny they secretly sired many years back. Sexual demeanours
are shameful, sometimes, but commonplace, nonetheless (2005:7).‟
South African men often argue that they are naturally inclined and traditionally entitled to be polygamous (Spiegel 1989). They also see their capacity to have multiple sexual liaisons as a sign of masculine success (Hunter 2005) . Promiscuous women generally provoke greater frowns, but it is widely recognised that in the context of grinding poverty women engage in „transactional‟ or „survival‟ sex in a desperate attempt to support themselves and their dependents (Wojcicki 2002, Hunter 2002). Sexual morality is of rather marginal concern in South Africa‟s numerous Zionist and apostolic churches .
In this article I argue that the association of AIDS with death is a more likely reason for its stigma in South African village and township settings. This suggestion is not entirely novel. For example, Ashforth (2002:116) and Viljoen (2005:70) observe that urban residents of Hammanskraal and Soweto, describe AIDS as a „waiting room for death‟, and HIV positive persons as „dead before dying‟. But neither author develops these ideas. The theoretical starting point of my analysis is Hertz‟s (1960) classical argument that death is often perceived as a process in which the deceased is slowly transferred from the land of the living into the land of the dead, rather than a single event. He distinguishes between two types of death: a biological death that ends the human organism and a social death that extinguishes the person‟s social identity. The biological death usually precedes the social one, and in the ambiguous state between these points, the deceased‟s soul is in a kind of limbo and is potentially dangerous to others. This is particularly evident in Africa, where, in a social sense, the dead person remains an omnipresent part of the lives of his or her kin, as an ancestor. But, as Helman (2000:146) suggests, there are circumstances in which a form of social death could precede the biological one. These include cases where persons are confined to institutions, such as hospices, for the rest of their lives.
Empirically, this article draws on intermittent fieldwork that I have conducted in Impalahoek, a village of 20,000 Northern Sotho and Tsonga inhabitants in the Bushbuckridge district of the South African lowveld, since 1990. During the era of Apartheid, Impalahoek formed part of the Northern Sotho Bantustan, Lebowa, and households depended upon wages earned by labour migrants in South Africa‟s industrial and mining centres. After the country‟s first democratic elections in 1994,
Bushbuckridge was incorporated into the newly constituted province of Mpumalanga. After more than a decade of democratic rule, the area still displayed many features of a „Native Reserve‟, such as high levels of unemployment, morbidity and mortality; welfare dependency; and the determinative effects of kinship. The information that I present derives primarily from interviews with twenty-five informants with whom I was particularly well acquainted; and from my experiences of assisting my terminally ill research assistant, Jimmy Mogale, who died in September 2005.
I observe that residents of the South African lowveld constructed AIDS as a terminal disease, and located persons with AIDS in an anomalous or liminal domain betwixt-and-between life and death. Contra the usual progression, a social death precedes the physical one. This conception explains why village residents perceived of AIDS as highly contaminating, refused to name it, denied its existence, and ostracized persons with AIDS. It also explains why persons who feared that they might be HIV positive would forgo testing for HIV antibodies and decline to use antiretroviral therapies.
Constructing AIDS in Bushbuckridge
A verbal autopsy survey shows that AIDS was responsible for a dramatic reversal in mortality rates in Bushbuckridge during the early 1990s . By 2005, AIDS-related deaths had affected nearly all families in the district.
HIV was spread in the context of a migrant labour system that obliged spouses to live apart for extended periods of time, and contributed to the frailty of conjugal bonds. The economy of sex in Bushbuckridge was marked by structured gender inequality, and by multiple sexual partners in diverse relationships, ranging from romantic love affairs in school to monogamous and polygamous marriages, long-term extra-marital liaisons, male to male sex in prisons, and brief sexual encounters arranged in drinking taverns. The transfer of bridewealth, gifts and money was a dominant theme in these relations, and distributed money towards the desperately poor women. This is clearly borne out by details on forty-two AIDS victims. The fifteen deceased men were amongst the „wealthier of the poor‟ and had the capacity to sustain different sexual relationships. They worked as migrant labourers or were locally employed as teachers or policemen. The twenty-seven deceased women were mainly unemployed and single, and received income from their lovers.
The first initiatives to stem the spread of HIV in Bushbuckridge emanated from non-governmental organisations. In 1992 the Health Systems Development Unit (HSDU) and Acornhoek Reproductive Heath Groups Project launched sexual health programmes. Staff members gave talks on sexual hygiene to various constituencies, including police, clergy, headmen, diviners, and youth at schools. The organisations also trained teachers as sex educators. At the same time, unpaid volunteers of the Bushbuckridge Social Service Consortium provided information and support to AIDS sufferers. In 2000, a LoveLife Youth Centre was built seven kilometres from
Impalahoek. The Centre aimed to promote a lifestyle of global youth culture and positive sexuality that was based on romantic love, being faithful, abstinence or using condoms. It hosted motivational workshops, dancing, studio broadcasting, computer training, drama, basketball and volleyball.
Despite great publicity about safe sex, medical treatment for people with AIDS remained woefully inadequate. A network of three hospitals and six clinics screened pregnant women for sero-prevalence and provided voluntary counselling and testing on request. But only in 2003 did the Masana hospital (about thirty kilometres away) start making the drug Nevirapine available to AIDS sufferers. In 2005 HIV and TB clinics providing outpatient services, were established at the Tintswalo hospital (within walking distance). Here a support group called Rixile („the rising sun‟) assisted patients in applying for social grants of 780 rand per month.
These initiatives have not destigmatised AIDS. Twenty-four of the twenty five people whom I interviewed refrained from taking HIV tests, saying that knowledge of a positive result might cause them to die sooner from stress, make nurses to gossip about their status, and provoke other villagers to discriminate against them. Close kin usually shielded terminally ill persons from public view and vehemently denied that they had AIDS. They often tried to deflect blame by claiming that the sick person had been bewitched. Such silence relegated talk about AIDS to backstage domains (Stadler 2003). But even here, villagers also used euphemisms to avoid mentioning the words „HIV‟ and „AIDS‟ directly. They would say that a person suffered from „germs‟ (twatši), the „virus of pain‟ (kukoana hloko), the „three letters‟ (maina a
mararo), or from „the fashionable disease‟ (ke ko lwetši bja gona bjalo). Other
expressions were that a person „owned a House In Vereeniging‟, purchased a single
ticket (in English), „was on diet‟ (o ya dayeta), ate moragela kgole (herbs that chase
people to leave home), or that „the dog had shat on its chain‟ (mpsya a nyele ketane,
and cannot be untied).
It would be foolhardy to view these responses as the simple result of ignorance. They can rather be seen as the – often unintentional – impact of medical framings of AIDS
as a terminal illness. AIDS Awareness campaigns have singled out AIDS for excessive propaganda, hereby creating the impression that AIDS is somehow deadlier than other diseases. The campaigns have also focused upon prevention rather than cure, hereby creating the impression that little can be done to assist any person who is HIV positive. Unfortunately these messages came too late: at a time when many villagers were already infected or considered themselves to have been infected.
Far from being untouched by these messages, my younger informants were over-saturated by them . AIDS education has become an important part in the curriculum of „life skills‟ classes in all schools. Each quarter learners at Impalahoek
Primary were divided into three groups for AIDS awareness classes: children between eight and twelve, and boys and girls older than twelve. Teachers did not mention sex to the younger learners, but warned them not to play with scissors, razors and pins; not to touch bleeding friends; and also not to inflate any balloons (condoms) they find lying around the village. (These lessons actually propagate miasmic theories of contagion.) Teachers teach the older learners the ABC – to Abstain, Be Faithful and
Condomise – and demonstrated safe sex with stage props such as artificial penises and different kinds of condoms. AIDS activists have targeted High School learners for
even more excessive propaganda and addressed them as often as twice a week. The instructions were mainly about condoms, but also mentioned the benefits of voluntary counselling and testing, medication and a healthy diet.
The LoveLife Youth Centre also deployed scary tactics. A former LoveLife youth recalled attending a motivational workshop, where they were told that AIDS is incurable and shown a video cassette of Ethiopians dying of AIDS-related diseases. The only message about treatment was that those who ate fruit and vegetables might prolong their lives. A former LoveLife goundBREAKER (the preferred spelling) made the following telling criticisms of the campaigns:
„I worked at LoveLife because I wanted a job and I only did what I was told. I
had to tell people, „AIDS kills! Use condoms!‟…We only talked about
prevention. We said AIDS was incurable. That is why we must prevent it. We
never told people what to do [when they were infected]. People who go around
with the awareness put a bad stigma on AIDS. They will say that AIDS kills. I
think that every disease kills: also high blood, sugar diabetes and TB. Why
don‟t they do blood pressure awareness? People have guns and guns kill. They
don‟t have gun awareness. Guns are meant to kill.‟
Political and religious discourses about AIDS were as prominent as medical ones. Villagers frequently blamed powerful outsiders for creating and spreading HIV. These included Dr. Wouter Basson, former head of the Apartheid government‟s chemical weapons programme, and Americans who allegedly manufactured the virus; white farmers who distributed HIV infected sweet potatoes and oranges; and funeral undertakers and corrupt government officials who blocked the AIDS cure. Within the domestic domain, women accused men of purposefully infecting others with the virus (Niehaus with Jonsson 2005). The numerous Zionist and apostolic churches in Impalahoek placed special emphasis on health and divine healing (Niehaus with Mohlala and Shokane 2001). Ministers often portrayed the AIDS pandemic as divine retribution for sin: not for individuals having unprotected sex, but rather for a world gone astray in a more general sense. They pointed to men marrying other men, children disrespecting their parents, the state legalising abortions, politicians who were utterly corrupt, and to frequent incidents of theft, rape and murder.
Religious discourses often present AIDS as a new kind of leprosy. A few of my informants identified AIDS itself, or the skin lesions of persons with AIDS, as leprosy, whilst others posited a metaphorical relationship between these conditions. These representations derived from Biblical mythology, rather than by an accurate assessment of clinical conditions [9, 10]. Isolated cases of leprosy did occur in Bushbuckridge until the 1970s, but my informants were not particularly well acquainted with their details. They nonetheless described leprosy as a most contagious and maximal illness, and portrayed lepers as horribly deformed and maximally ravaged persons, whose flesh literally rotted away whilst they were still alive.
Villagers referred to several overlapping meanings. They saw both Biblical leprosy and AIDS as expressions of God‟s wrath. In the Bible leprosy (zara’at in Hebrew) is
frequently portrayed as a plague, sent by God as punishment for sin. Like lepers, persons with AIDS bore an anomalous mixture of living and dead tissue, and were deemed to have died a social death, although they were actually still physically alive.
Lewis writes that in the Old Testament the leper was tainted with death, and „carried in his person a defiling taint which excluded him absolutely with any contact with holy things, even contact with clean people, even contact with the community‟ (Lewis 1987:607). Both conditions were also deemed to be highly contagious. In a similar manner as families confined persons with AIDS in-doors, lepers were confined to leprosaria . But villagers recognised AIDS as being deadlier than leprosy. Christians sited many Biblical passages, showing examples where God and Jesus had cured lepers. By contrast, they saw AIDS as terminal. Another difference was that initially, the symptoms of AIDS were invisible. This provided little comfort. In villages where the secret powers of witchcraft were a standardised nightmare, the concealed inspires greater fear than the transparent.
The Sexual Hypothesis
Village residents recognised sexual promiscuity as a route for the transmission of the HI virus. An elderly woman said explained, „In the past we married, but today the youth have lost their morals. They ignore taboos and screw about. This is why they are dying like ants.‟ Some Tsonga euphemisms for AIDS, such as sephamula („open
up‟), and phamukati („lie down‟), referred to the positions of women during sexual intercourse. However, the recognition that faithful people might be infected by their spouses, that mothers might transmit HIV to their babies, and miasmic theories of contagion, weakened the link between sexual promiscuity and AIDS.
It is extremely unlikely that the association of AIDS with sexual promiscuity is the major, or even a significant, source of its stigma. Villagers generally perceived of sex as a means of procreation, pleasure and of maintaining good health (Collins and Stadler 2000). Villagers saw heterosexual intercourse as ensuring a balanced supply of blood: in the sex act, a man first injected semen (known as white blood), and then absorbed the woman‟s vaginal fluids (also blood). Getting married and bearing children were ideal attributes of adult personhood, and men took pride in having multiple lovers.
Sex was indeed a potential source of immorality. But villagers did not directly associate the kinds of sex they considered to be most immoral with AIDS. Gay marriages, abortions and subversions of gender and age hierarchies were sometimes counted amongst the sins, for which AIDS was a divine retribution (Niehaus 2002). But these transgressions were not recognised as routes for the transmission of AIDS. Contra to medical knowledge about AIDS, former mineworkers described male to male sex in South Africa‟s gold mining compounds as hygienic and healthy.
„I have personally asked the elderly men why they prefer boys. They tell me that
women bite. With a woman you can become ill and you can get STDs [sexually
transmitted diseases] and you can even die if she has committed an abortion.
With women there is also AIDS. They say it is safe with a young boy. He won‟t
transfer any diseases to you.‟
Masturbation, celibacy and singleness were also deemed to be more dishonourable than promiscuity. Indeed, I was told that in the past kin would show their discontent at a man who had died without leaving any progeny by shoving a burning log into the anus of his corpse. Villagers were also extremely suspicious of adult male bachelors
(kgope or lefetwa) who lived by themselves. Prolonged celibacy was said to cause poorly regulated bodily fluids, short temper, recklessness and depression.
Moreover, the association of AIDS with sex does not explain the reluctance of villagers to speak about it. Whilst it is true that talk of about sex was proscribed, there were many social situations and relations in which people spoke fairly openly about sex. Elders, particularly parents, were prohibited from speaking directly to younger people about sex, and vice versa. Notable exceptions were the mother‟s brother,
father‟s younger siblings, and elder siblings, who could to speak to youngsters about sex in a pedagogical manner. Grandparents could also joke with grandchildren about sex. But such joking was not reciprocal. In these forms of talk, sex was referred to indirectly, by euphemisms such as to „share a blanket‟ (ke lepai re ya apolelana),
„penetrate‟ (tobetsa), „taste‟ (kwa), „perform‟ (maka) or „sleep‟ (robala). But one
could freely speak about sex to spouses, lovers, coevals, friends, and to outsiders such as anthropologists. Also, cousins shared a reciprocal joking relationship, in which they frequently shared lewd sexual jokes.
Villagers recognised sex as a potential source of danger (Heald 1992), and had a very elaborate vocabulary of sexually transmitted diseases. They generally considered the safest sex to be between spouses or regular lovers, who were immune to each other, because their bodies regularly exchanged sweat, blood, odours, and aura (seriti). In the
case of incest, where patrilineal kin were of „the same blood‟, there could be no mingling, resulting in the birth of crippled or mentally retarded babies. On the other hand, inauspicious sex could bring about an excessive mixture of substances. If a woman had made love to several men, her lovers would absorb substances from each other‟s bodies, via her. Should any man whom had been polluted in this manner come into contact with children, they could contract makgoma, and experience convulsions and
shortness of breath.
The most commonly recognised sexually transmitted diseases were gonorrhoea (toropo), syphilis (leshofela) and afflictions that arose from sexual intercourse with women who were pregnant, had recently aborted, or had recently been widowed. In local belief such women were in a dangerous state of heat (fiša). The bodies of
pregnant women formed a duality between mother and child; and those of women whom had aborted and widows were still contaminated by the aura of the dead baby or deceased husband. Sexual intercourse with such women allegedly caused a man to „shudder‟ (lešiši‟). The women‟s heat might cause his entire body to swell up and his groin to ache so badly that he might be unable to walk. In the case of abortion, a man‟s blood would be poisoned; he would be unable to urinate, sweat profusely, and cough severely.
But these sexually transmitted diseases differed significantly from AIDS. Men freely told me about their experiences of contracting gonorrhoea, syphilis, and lešiši. When
contracting such diseases a husband was generally expected to tell his wife, so that they, together, could consult diviners to seek a cure. But in the case of lešiši, which
was potentially fatal, a man also had to inform his uncles and aunts. As one man explained to me, „If you do not speak out you might breathe your last breathe.‟ Women perceived of sexually transmitted diseases as more shameful, but according to a local teacher, women, too, have begun to speak about them.
The key difference that accounts for the silence surrounding AIDS was its terminal nature. People were confident that diviners and medical doctors could easily cure sexually transmitted diseases and afflictions. The Sotho-speaking Malopo spirits, who possessed local diviners, were believed to confer special powers of diagnosing and treating gonorrhoea, syphilis, and lešiši. By boiling tree roots in water, and using this
concoction to purify the blood of their clients, diviners could heal these diseases in a matter of two or three days. Diviners could treat lešiši with herbal concoctions; place
a clay pot containing glowing embers on the client‟s head, and administer enemas to make him discharge thick blood.
Being Physically Alive and Socially Dead
The association of AIDS with dying and with death is a more likely source of its stigma, and illuminates many aspects of people‟s responses to AIDS. In interviews, my informants explicitly stated that their fears of undertaking HIV tests stemmed from the possibility of discovering that they had been afflicted with a fatal, incurable, disease. Most men said knowledge of being HIV positive would hasten their deaths.
„I don‟t want to suffer. I don‟t want to be rude. If you test HIV positive you
will loose your memory, thinking all the time about death and dying. People
will not gossip about you because you screw, but because you are dead. They
will take you as dead. They will take you as a living corpse.‟
„We blacks are brought up to believe that death is a terrible tragedy. If they tell
me that I am HIV positive I‟ll think of dying. I‟ll automatically think that I‟m
dead. I will see death in my mind and I will dream of a grave. Because people
fear death so much they would not want to talk to me or even come close to
In certain respects, villagers saw persons with AIDS as being no different from those dying from any other terminal illness. In these cases, too, a social death preceded a physical one. Terminally ill persons (bakwale badimo) were invariably secluded from
fellow villagers. This practice was observed with such regularity that one middle-aged informant told me he had never seen a dying person. „They always hide them away‟. Only a select few people were allowed to nurse them. Traditionally a young man was nursed by his father, a young woman by her mother, a married person by his or her spouse, a widower by his brother or younger paternal uncle, and a widow by her sister or younger maternal aunt. But due to the vagaries of labour migrancy and marital breakdown, it was usually mothers who washed, fed and cared for the sick. The proverb, „The child‟s mother holds the knife by its sharp end‟ (Mmago ngwana o swara tipa ba
bogale), alludes to the hardships mothers undergo to protect their children. Primary caregivers had to comfort and strengthen (phorola) the sick person verbally. Even if the
situation was gravely serious, one should never name the person‟s disease; say that he or she is about to die, or speak about topics that might upset him or her.
A constantly burning fire in the yard indicated sickness in a household. Nobody could enter the sick person‟s room without the primary caregiver‟s permission: especially not those polluted by birth, sex and death. People who had come from diviners or from church were also prohibited from entering because their prescriptions might counteract
the sick person‟s medicines. Relatives and neighbours were, nonetheless, welcome to visit the household, fetch water for them, and donate food for the sick person.
Whereas terminally ill persons were seen as vulnerable, death was seen as dangerous and contaminating. Upon death, the breath (moya) and aura (seriti, lit. shadow) of a
deceased person separated from his or her corporal body (mmele). The aura emanating
from a corpse assumed a dark, sorrowful, form, called thefifi, which could pollute any
object, item or person that came into contact with it. Villagers believed that a deceased person‟s clothes and utensils literally, „Had his body‟ (O na le mmele ya ka. .
During funerals people took great care to avoid pollution. Kin immediately took the corpse to the mortuary, where it was thoroughly washed and cleansed. The bereaved family then observed a weeklong period of mourning. They pitched a large tent in the yard, and the entire household slept outside their home to show grief and sorrow. Members of the bereaved family observed various prohibitions. They abstained from sexual intercourse, stopped working in the fields, and refrained from touching children. If a member of the family was not at home during the time of death, he should enter through the main gate facing backwards, and drink water from a wooden spoon. Visitors were not allowed to take anything from the homes of bereaved families. Each evening before sunset neighbours and friends visited and consoled the bereaved family.
Late on the Friday afternoon people fetched his corpse from the mortuary and placed it inside the home of the bereaved family. Here widows - whom had previously been exposed to the dangers of death – prepared the corpse for a final time. To minimise its
heat they sprinkled ash on all windows. As residue left when the flames of a fire had departed, ash is seen as the opposite of heat, and is used as a cooling agent (Hammond-Tooke 1981: 145). A vigil was then held throughout the night.
On the Saturday morning a funeral service was conducted at the home of the bereaved family and a hearse then transported the coffin to the graveyard. Young men usually placed items such as blankets, walking sticks, cups and plates, which had been polluted by the aura of the deceased, in the grave. Throughout the proceeding‟s the widow‟s head was covered with a blanket.
A burial society then served all attendants with food at the home of the deceased. At the gate men sprinkled everyone who entered the yard with water – both on their front and
back - to cool them. After the meal women thoroughly cleansed all utensils of the deceased. To remove all misfortune from the home, Zionist healers sprinkled all members of the bereaved family with holy water, and cleansed the yard, and all rooms with a mixture of water, milk, ash, and salt. This was done to „tie the spirit‟ (hlema moya)
of the deceased. However, widows were still perceived as polluting and had to observe a year-long mourning period. To immunise children against her their heat, they were cleansed with paraffin. Else they might develop the affliction, mafulara, marked by
Throughout the funeral mourners were prohibited from speaking ill of the deceased, and pastors have even been known to describe gangsters as honourable churchgoers. Nobody could refer directly to death but had to signify it by non-verbal means. For example, when a young man died at initiation the master of the lodge would break a clay pot in front of his mother . Symbolic inversions, such as turning around logs in a fire and
placing their thick ends in the centre, also signify death. Common euphemisms for death were that the deceased had been „taken by a hyenas or lions‟ (tšerwe ke phiri/ditau);
„gone to the place of the ancestors‟ (o ile badimong); that the widow‟s „house has fallen‟
(o wetše ke ntlo), the „water had dried up‟ (meetse a pshele), or sun had set‟ (dikeletswe
ke letšatsi). This resonated with the manner in which villagers avoided direct reference to AIDS.
One of the most striking aspects of people‟s attitudes was their intense unease, and even abhorrence, of a „living corpse‟ (setopo sa gopela). They were in the liminal domain
betwixt-and-between the categories „life‟ and „death‟, and contradicted normal schemes of classification (Turner 1967 and Douglas 1970). Nearly all my informants said that they felt less disturbed by a corpse. Many had been called upon to identify the corpses of relatives at the mortuary, or had viewed corpses at night vigils. By contrast, living corpses were described as burdensome and pitiful. One of my informants explained,
„I can tolerate a corpse, but not a person who is dying. When I look at such a
person his agony will be transferred to me and I will feel his pain. I will be
traumatised. I will also think about those who have to care for me when I‟m in
such a situation.‟
Fear of a living death exceeded fear of death itself. Local residents perceived the transformation of people into zombies (ditlotlwane) as the most reprehensible form of
witchcraft. They alleged that witches first captured the victim‟s aura and then took hold of different parts of his or her body, until they possessed the entire person. However, witches deceived the victim‟s kin by leaving behind an image of him or her. The kin,
believing that the victim is dead, bury what they assume to be his or her body, but which is instead the stem of a fern tree that had merely been given the victim‟s image. Meanwhile, at home, witches cut the tongues of their victims, rendering them mute. Witches hide their zombies during the day, but employ them at night to perform the mindless tasks of domestic servants and unskilled labourers. All zombies are only a meter tall and similar in appearance, indicating their childlike status and absence of uniqueness. They work only for maize porridge, are sexless and devoid of any other human desires. Zombies were portrayed as socially dead but physically alive: forever stuck in a hidden parallel world (Niehaus 2005).
Elderly informants told me that euthanasia was fairly common in the past. Initiation masters reportedly treated themselves with a tortoise heart to ensure longevity. Even though their brain might be dead and their bodies rotting, their hearts would continue beating. To relieve them, and also others of their pain, I was told relatives would rap their bodies in blankets, place them at the entrance of the cattle kraal, and drive the herd of cattle over them. Other means of euthanasia included placing tšhipi herbs underneath
their pillows, making them inhale fofotsa (also used to terminate the life of sick animals),
or treating them with a mixture of fig and python tail fat.
But there was also disjuncture between AIDS and other terminal illnesses. AIDS seems to be marked by a peculiar compression of time. The symbolic load of AIDS is so overpowering that labelling immediately signifies social death. Even the newly infected person is „tainted with death‟, and her or she is described as „dead before the real death‟. The very gradual progression from infection, to illness to death, that so frequently