South Africa's HIV News Squeezed in Among Politics and Crime

Dec 12011

The last of the jacaranda’s hardiest blossoms are being blasted from the trees by fierce wind and rain. Spring has turned to stormy summer in South Africa, and almost everyone in Johannesburg is about to decamp for the beach or the village for the holidays.

The media have been obsessed with the antics of the leaders of the ANC Youth League, the young lords of the ruling party who’re led by Julius Malema, now facing a five-year suspension from the ANC for defying party elders, disrupting meetings, and criticizing President Zuma. COP17, otherwise known as the 17th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, is eating up the South African Broadcasting Corp.’s airwaves. With politics and crime taking up so much airtime, what’s a health reporter to do?

So it was, as a senior reporter, an intern, and their mentor – me – headed up the road to Pretoria. (It gets warmer going north here.) There’s a briefing on the status of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic, which shows signs of stabilizing among some groups but creeping up among others – mainly young women who are prey to older men. There’s also an interview with Brig. Gen. Lulu Siwisa, who's in charge of the military’s HIV program.

The senior health correspondent for SABC News also doubles as a news anchor for the Zulu broadcasts some weekdays. The intern, a teacher from a small town, has come on board at SABC Radio without pay to learn the trade in hopes of later landing a job. The mentor is getting a refresher in what really happens on the ground – those little things that easily trip up even the most experienced reporters in broadcast journalism.

I prod them in mock seriousness to find out if they’ve checked the equipment before we’ve left, only to learn they have not as we proceed to the interview. Failure. Not to worry; the engineers reconfigure what digital technology has mangled. We just have to listen in “real” time and not download instantly. Note to self: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.”

After weeks of chasing a general and people who struggle to live honestly with a virus, the grind of wrestling information and human angst into compelling stories delivers news accounts to the airwaves of SABC, sharing time with reports from a team in Durban debating the Kyoto Treaty and the promises of Copenhagen. Senior health correspondent Thabile Maphanga can beam through near exhaustion, continuing to file reports for annual World AIDS Day, which is today, while offering a special series on HIV among health workers and the military.