Soul City: 20 years later and HIV still on the rise

I can’t find the piece I wrote about it, but 20 years ago, as a TV reporter for a local newspaper, I stood on the set of the first series of Soul City. If I recall correctly, it was somewhere out in Midrand, and I remember it clearly because the set was so convincingly built, that it almost smelt like an informal settlement.

And it wasn’t just me who thought so. Whoever was showing me around told me that residents in the area had called the municipality to complain about the tin shacks sprouting in the veld adjoining their houses, and the producers had to explain themselves and put everyone’s minds at ease.

Soul City was a ground-breaking television series for South Africa. It was one of the first “edutainment” series that was actually entertaining. A local doctor, Garth Japhet, had dreamed it up, and got organisations like Unicef on board to sponsor, and I remember very clearly that the programme was written to be a compelling drama first and foremost. This was no low-budget educational video. It was a drama series, with high production values, but it tackled issues like HIV and Aids head-on, as well as other public health concerns like infant mortality rates and TB. And it really got South Africa talking about some truly taboo issues for the first time.

Last night while scrolling through my Twitter timeline, I clocked the fact that Soul City is now in its 12th season, and that it’s the same age as our democracy — both have been around since 1994. And then I started looking up some facts and figures, and realised that in 1994, the HIV infection rate was less than 5% of the population. The most recent figures I could find now are 12.2%.

We should be hanging our heads in shame. I’m not sure why all of the public campaigns and initiatives like Soul City haven’t had the desired impact. I know, at one point, that many felt like every public health message was an HIV and Aids message, and perhaps we became inured to them and stopped taking them seriously. Perhaps it was all too much.

Or perhaps the availability of good treatment for Aids in the form of ARVs has left us complacent. Because the truth is that HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence: comply with your treatment and you can live a long, healthy life — it’s like any other chronic lifestyle disease.

But the bottom line is still this: most HIV transmission is still highly, and easily preventable. And a figure that has increased to 12.2% after 20 years of messaging and HIV and Aids programmes and better education on the subject just isn’t acceptable.

Maybe we need a think-tank — the best and brightest strategic minds in the country, who truly understand how people think — to come up with something entirely new. Because when I think about how simple HIV prevention can be, and look at the infection rates, something just doesn’t add up.

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