Despite the heavy snowfall outside, students and professors showed up last Friday to hear Antoinette Handley discuss how the AIDS epidemic has shaped the moral and political economy in South Africa.
Handley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, is well-known for her research on the subject.
She opened her presentation by quoting the American political scientist Charles Tilly: “War makes the state, and the state makes war.” She encouraged her audience to think of the AIDS epidemic not just in terms of the government’s response to the disease, but also as a key influence on the South African state.
Using the idea of the body politic, Handley argued that the way a virus moves through society is analogous to the way it moves through the body.
“Like the viruses in our body,” she said, “the epidemic maps onto and traces and feeds off the susceptible contours, cleavages, and pathways in a particular political economy.”
In South Africa, Handley argued, the racial divisions of poverty and the prevalence of labour migration provided such pathways for the epidemic to spread.
Handley also addressed some of the complications facing both the South African government and the private sector in enacting health care policies for AIDS victims, and how these complications have shaped the relationships between businesses and the government.
While many have pointed to “neoliberal” policies as the number one villain of the underdeveloped health care system in South Africa, Handley argued the country’s polarized society is actually at the heart of the health care system’s problems.
Born and raised in South Africa, Handley spent her university years in the province of KwaZulu-Natal during the eighties, a time when the area was embroiled in conflict. Though Apartheid has since ended, many of those tensions still exist.
“Proper debates over the pros and cons of AIDS drugs are often overshadowed by the polarized forces in South African politics,” Handley said. She also emphasized the role of citizens in the shaping of South African health policies.
“There is very little organized and concerted demand for the provision of health care, with the exception of the Treatment Action campaign,” she said. “AIDS is not at the top of the list of what people want given the myriad of challenges that people face, including the accessibility to jobs.”
One of Handley’s main interests lies in what she sees as the disparity between the ways by which we conceptualize the epidemic and what the reality is in South Africa.
“It is not that democracy has failed. Democracy has succeeded on many levels, it is only that people don’t see AIDS as the most important issue out there,” she said.
Amongst those who attended the lecture, Sandra Aigbinode, a master’s political science student, said that the session cleared up a number of things for her.
“I have read Professor’s Handley’s paper on the topic before,” she said. “But I was hesitant about the role of denialism in shaping the actions of the South African government, so I’m glad I came to meet with and talk to her in person.”
Through her research, Handley hopes that people will see the AIDS epidemic in South Africa differently and emphasized the potential of the corporate sector and the state to act in the broader interest.
“Instead of seeing it as merely a social tragedy,” she said, “we should see it as a driving force behind state-business relationship and the implications this has on the average African citizen.”