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Author: Catherine Burns
Title: Silencing the Present
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 2005

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Source: Silencing the Present

no. ns 2, June 2005


Catherine E. Burns

Senior Lecturer in History in the School of Anthropology, Gender and Historical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

In October 1999 I was catching up with a pile of photocopying for my History 3 class on 'Women and Gender in History'. Standing in the half lit small 'records room' at the end of the University's History Department passage I heard a quiet cough. T.S. [1] peered around the open door. He was much taller than me, and, in order not to startle me, or appear to look down on me, he stood to my side when I invited him in, covering his shy smile with his hand. He looked serious, but not worried, and he offered to help me make and staple the copies. He had been paid as an occasional library assistant from the Departmental collection that term and he knew how the machine worked. He also knew his class was due a new reading pack the next week, and as usual he was the first student in the class to come in and check if they were ready. It was a Friday afternoon. I wanted to get them done before 2 pm, and now it was after 1pm. His presence would be a real help, and maybe I could keep my promise and get the packs stapled and ready at the main door on time. "Sure" I said, "And then we can use the chance to have a long-delayed chat about next year".

T.S. was taller than average and an unusually careful dresser, wearing that day, as I clearly recall, white ironed jeans and a white cotton shirt. He had taken particular care with dressing and had obviously come in specially to find me and to talk. I knew that recently he had been gleaning some financial support from sponsors of his amateur soccer playing club, located near to the University, and he looked more fleshed-out than he had a few months before. I had met with him earlier in the second term about his work and his finances and he told me quietly, but with evident pride, that he had been selected by a good local semi-professional soccer club as a trainee player, and that he was getting his transport paid as well as extra meals and food money, a new soccer kit, tracksuits and so on. Although he had often battled to make ends meet on his University student loan in the pervious years, and found it difficult to buy the required books and eat as well as he knew he should, he was always a careful and even dapper dresser. He was in a small seminar group with me as his tutor in 1997, as a first year student, part of a course lectured by one of my colleagues. Titled "Introduction to Historical Studies" this large course used no teaching assistants. Instead as our flag-ship course, every member of academic staff—no matter their historical area or what else they were teaching—participated in this course by taking a small seminar group each week with the same 15 students, getting to know them well, and reading and marking their assignments. A professor in history had developed this course on his return to South Africa from Norway: it was intended to address huge disparities in educational backgrounds for the new University community of students and awaken new interest in fresh approaches to the past. It began with students locating their own lives and that of their families in time and space and students wrote an autobiographical sketch before we plunged into themes such as the history of South East Africa, of its connections with the economies and societies of East Africa, of the Indian Ocean, of European migration, and of the Zulu Kingdom in the region. In my class, along with all his peers, T.S. had sketched-out a minimalist picture of his life before he had arrived in Durban: he was born in Melmouth (a region well north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal), he was educated at a local semi-rural school, but a priest at a small Lutheran Mission in the area had noticed him and urged him to take his 12th grade classes seriously and had supplied him with extra books. Later, in his final year of school, this same man had arrived with forms about the University in Durban and advice on financial aid applications. T.S.'s parents were farm workers and occasional wage labourers in the small towns on and around local commercial white farms. None of his family members had received more than a few years of schooling. At this time I knew very little more about him than this and that he had been awarded a full University loan—which had to be paid back at the end of his studies—and which covered tuition and a residence stipend for 3 years (the duration of a South African undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree). I did not know then that this first post-Apartheid flush of funding for the poor would soon wither and then virtually dry up. But at this time and in this way T.S., and many of his peers, made their way to Durban and began changing the campus where I had taken up a post 4 years before.

1999 was a special year: we had a large undergraduate and graduate student intake. Several of the students enrolled in 1994 (the year before I arrived) were completing their Masters degrees already, and moving on to exciting posts in schools, in museums, working for media companies and our state broadcasting company—the SABC—some were staying on for further research. The mood of the Department was very good. We had several excellent soccer players in our Honours and 3rd year class that year and in our graduate cohort two of the University's best known soccer stars. The senior cohort had taken trips into the midlands with us for weekends and with other colleagues in history on archaeological trips. On these trips, over cake in our tea lounge, for people's birthdays, and in our seminars and lectures, we had begun picking away at the seams of class, ethnicity, language that bordered our lives and the lives of our diverse students. The soccer heroes gave our Department a special shine. B.M., D.M. and N.R. were so good at the game that they were hailed as they walked around campus, and I knew that the two senior men, D.M. and N.R., had seriously considered lives as professional players. Both had stuck with graduate study. Their style, their confidence, and their seriousness about academic studies proved powerful magnets to younger men like T.S. D.M. was also a Residence Warden and head of some section of student sports administration: people like him, who had struggled to get into institutions of higher learning in the first years after the demise of the Apartheid state, helped to draw-in and then inspire the first substantial generation of rural-born and state-schooled African men into University life.

T.S. was far less gregarious and orally eloquent than many of his peers. He was in fact exceedingly difficult to draw-out in class discussions, and was much happier making formally planned presentations on the work at hand. I had been increasingly interested in his potential all of the academic year, having co-taught another class, "Making of Modern South Africa" that he had taken in the first semester. T.S.'s essays always revealed an increasing grasp of the complexity of the set readings and were unusually argumentative and experimental for an undergraduate. His written tone was confident and even garrulous, and I found him intriguing: how to square this confident writer with the very quiet, even diffident-seeming, man who shielded his mouth shyly when he smiled.

T.S. wanted to speak with me alone, but he was relieved I sensed that we were not meeting in my office. It was better to work and talk: side by side—me passing him books and lifting out the copied paper, and he operating the machine—than face-to-face. He wanted to tell me that he had decided he wanted to try out for a professional soccer team in Durban in a few weeks time, and, if he did this, he would miss the week of an in-class film and test assignment. He would bring a letter to ask permission, he told me, and he wanted to know how he could keep up with his work by doing more now. Finally, he wanted to know what I thought about this plan since I had already indicated to him a few weeks earlier that I thought if he worked hard and challenged himself in his final research essay he could get into our Honours class for 2000. I knew very little about professional soccer or any sports, except what I had gleaned from being around the older students. So I asked him to tell me more about his chances and what he would be paid and what kind of career options lay ahead. He was animated; according to him this was an opportunity of a life time. After listening, I agreed. And then we both agreed that he should do as well as he could at the end of the year for the sake of his established good record, for his self confidence, and also in case he did not make the second cut next year when the team would try him out in a professional game. I could see even as an outsider that the world of professional sports was ruthless if you failed certain key tests on certain key days.

So T.S. left that day, after we had assembled all the packs, with his pack under his arm, and some extra readings for the week he would miss later in the month. The next week as promised I wrote a letter granting permission for his absence at seminars and a test to the sports club that was sending him for the sports trial, and watched out eagerly for his return. I still have the letter on my hard drive. It is the first of many letters and e-mails I have since saved about, and to and from, T.S. He was looking forward to life at every level that I knew of in December 1999 when he was able to report to us that he had been selected. When everyone else dispersed after the end of the academic year (in December in South Africa) and to go home for holidays and for Christmas, he would be based in Durban as a trainee with the team. He came to our end of year party in new track-style clothes, encircled by his fellow 3rd years, aware of the good news.

At the end of 1999 very few of our undergraduates ever e-mailed the academic staff. Two years later we all used e-mail and "listservers" for news alerts, for sending around shared papers, for commenting on class assignments, and for more personal messages. T.S., who always more communicative in writing than orally, began the year with a wish to me for the new millennium via e-mail. I did not see him again until early February. A very different T.S. slumped into the Department on a steaming Durban summer day, just a week before graduate registration. He had been dropped from the team he said. Could he take up an Honours degree after all? Was there time? Was there University funding for this? Of course I asked him about what had happened, but he was reluctant to say much except that "things had not worked out". I felt sad for him, but was sincere when I said that he could have an excellent year with us and work on a really worthwhile project. I spent a lot of time over the next 2 weeks writing letters and lobbying for him to get some last minute funding, and then suddenly it was all sorted out and he was in our graduate group. I saw him for a few sessions around planning his thesis project before August and every Wednesday he attended our African Studies and History Seminar series—the common session that binds our Department together every week of the teaching term, every year since 1995. He looked a bit down, but my colleagues and I agreed this was to be expected after the rush of adrenalin at the end of 1999. His written work was good and got better, but my colleagues found him even more difficult to communicate with in seminar classes. By Easter I noticed that he had begun looking thinner and was less careful in his dress and appearance. I kept asking him questions about what he was planning now about his soccer such as was he going to go back to playing for the University team. I thought this would keep his fitness up and get him back into a group of good mates. Soon it was clear he was no longer spending time with the University team members any longer and that he did not want to talk about this part of this life with me. From this time I backed off asking him anything about his friends or family. He came to our home a few times for Departmental events but we became more formal with each other in general. But I was worried. After a series of gentle attempts to meet with him face-to-face I began e-mailing him about what I saw was his worried state and he made it clear to me that his heavy University loan and the need to start paying it back was a huge source of anxiety. Along with his diminishing soccer dreams, this issue seemed to be his key worry. I could understand this very well and knowing that the stipends were not keeping up with costs, I helped him apply for a trainee post at our local archive and research library attached to the University. He took up the post later that year and he communicated to me that his money worries had lessoned. He was also now eligible for some of the benefits of University contract staff and although his work load increased his job was linked to his graduate research and also began to give him training for an applied field close to his interests. He began a series of e-mails with me about possible future jobs and told me he was thinking about becoming a public historian, working in a museum or an archive, rather than a school teacher. Over the course of 2000 we wrote more than a dozen short informal e-mails to each other about his work and his research. In the second half of the year I awarded him one of the best marks for a long essay on "Silence and Memory in Historical Writing", which he had undertaken for our graduate course "Theory and Method in History". He used the works of Isabel Hofmeyr, Ralph Trouillot, Carlo Ginzburg, Paul Thomson, E.S. Atineo Odihambo and David W. Cohen to write an essay about the close reading of, and listening to, sources for avoidance and silence. He was thinking about how difficult it was to get his family to speak about something that he had a clear memory of experiencing when he was about 6 years old in the early 1980s: the forced removal of his family's home, along with several hundred other families, to a remote piece of land outside of the commercial white farming zone around Melmouth. He told me that he had been trying to raise the subject with uncles and relatives but that his parents always demurred and changed the subject. In his excellent essay he alluded to this and concluded by suggesting that silences could be respected (the silence of his parents) and act as productive sources for further research (his own interests), that these could be balanced. He e-mailed me later in the year that he wanted to pursue a Masters degree on the history of the region from whence he hailed, including the themes of the last 20 years, and the period of forced removals under Apartheid, using oral sources, mission archives, state records, records of the local district (farming and health board records and so on). On my urging he met with one of my colleagues, a professor in History, and the two of them began a series of discussions about the feasibility of this. This colleague was making a trip to Zululand in any case and invited T.S. to accompany him, and several other students interested in work around the region, on a trip there one weekend. The group returned excited about the possibilities of this thesis being developed and talking about several other projects. At the end of the year T.S. was awarded high marks for his final research papers and for his "Theory and Method" exam, and in his last e-mail to me that year vowed to spend Christmas at home gently opening the door to discussions around the recent and more remote past of his family and surrounding communities. We agreed he would start archival work after March or April of the next year. We found him some funding for the Masters Degree registration process through the National Research Foundation and he was confirmed for a second contract of work at the archive he was working at. He seemed well and less depressed than at the start of 2000. I felt he was beginning to move on from the sad loss of his soccer dream, and I joined in the excitement around his thesis focus.

Our e-mails throughout 2001 trace his various trips to the archives—in Ulundi, to Pretoria and back several times, as well as to the Pietermaritzburg archives. As he worked away (now a part time Masters student, with more responsibilities at this archival place of work) I knew less about him personally. He was my colleague's student and I had many of my own, and he was doing well on the research front. He planned to have his first chapter ready in December of his first year of registration. This was a good goal for a part-time student and I was proud that his work ethic was maintained even as he worked a full day at the archive on other projects 4 days a week. He was involved in the memorials to a much loved graduate student in March 2001, and although he was quieter than ever in our lively occasional departmental gatherings, he seemed focused and healthy. He sent me the first chapter as a courtesy and because he knew I was interested. On 10 December 2001 at 8:17 am he wrote:

Hi Catherine,

I hope you are fine. Sekungamagama enkehli (it basically means agreement time). I have attached my first chapter and I'll appreciate it if you pass me any kind of comments.


Looking back I know I felt that we started off 2002 on a positive note. I sent him back my suggestions and comments in the first week of January and met with his advisor over coffee to informally discuss T.S.'s progress. I asked him via e-mail if he wanted to meet, but he thanked me warmly for my comments and said he would make use of some of them, and I did not press again.

I now know that T.S. was not fine at all that December and that he had been heavily burdened with worries beyond soccer dreams and money all through 2000 and 2001. It would take until the end of 2002 for me to see this. What sustained the silences through this time?

In February and March of 2002 the Treatment Action Campaign's (TAC) efforts to get cheaper and safer HIV treatments to people with AIDS, as well as develop national and local support structures and facilities for people living with HIV, gained momentum. I was marginally involved with some of the work on our campus: lending Departmental and institutional support to student activists, writing materials for some courses for undergraduates and graduates, reading widely on the subject, and acting as a sounding board for people in our University administration preparing programmes and responses to the growing evidence of the number of us touched by HIV/AIDS in our city and on our campus. I was working very hard and focused my energies for graduate students on my handful of time-consuming, demanding, stimulating and brilliant graduate students. I e-mailed T.S. 23 times between February and September 2002. Each time he was one of 11 to 20 people to whom I sent a group e-mail, 21 times about the TAC battles or an issue related to HIV and our campus responses and services. I sent him copies of speeches by Zackie Achmat, I sent him support materials and the University treatment policy, and I sent him news of the establishment of the holistic HIV centre at McCord Hospital—Sinikithemba. I sent him news of Judge Edwin Cameron's honorary doctorate being awarded by the University and Cameron's decision to go public with his HIV status as well as his decision to work with anti-retrovirals, and other eating and exercise regimes, to control his status and stay healthy. I wrote to a few graduate students, always including T.S., about how proud I was to meet Cameron and my pleasure in the task I had been given as University Orator for the evening, writing a speech about the Honourable Judge's life achievements. Every Wednesday through term time I saw T.S. at the Wednesday afternoon seminar series. He barely greeted me. His only two e-mails to me that year were about the two personal e-mails I sent him regarding new funding opportunities and a second one about the chance to meet with a public historian interested in young academics considering a career in the field of museums and so on. T.S. had courteously replied to both of these and followed-up each of these opportunities. In response to all my other group e-mails—most of them on or about an HIV related issue—he remained silent. I did not think it was too unusual. How many times a week do we all receive such mailings and not reply to the sender?

Then in late September 2002 I asked T.S. if he would like to have coffee with me one day when I was near his place of work. A few days before his advisor told me that he was worried about T.S. who seemed to have lost energy with his Masters work. My colleague said he was not communicating effectively with him any longer. T.S. agreed, I thought, reluctantly. We sat on the grass and then walked a while. I told him I had noticed we had got out of touch and that I had not seen his latest chapters. I said I wanted to chat before I got ready to leave for my 6 month stint in the USA with my family from late December to the end of May 2003. For the first time ever I found him evasive and vague about his research work. He looked thin and washed out. I spent a difficult hour with him talking about my daughter and about our impending trip to the USA. It was clear he felt relieved that I was not pressing him about his health, his personal life or his thesis work. I invited him to see me in October or November before I left and to keep in touch while I was away. As I was about to part with him, I asked him if he recalled his essay in Honours on "Silence" and whether or not he found any of the ideas in that paper useful as he worked on oral histories. I knew from his advisor that he had been interviewing extended kin members and people in the region of Melmouth 8 weeks before in the vacation break. T.S. kept quiet for a while and then he laughed softly and said: "It is difficult visiting home. People do not want to talk." That is what I remember him saying. I said that I wished we could start our discussion all over again from this point, and said again, "Why don't we meet soon and talk about this?" He agreed to e-mail me a time. In November I remembered suddenly, on my list of people to see, that T.S. had never followed up, and nor had I. I called him at work and he said he would come to see me an hour before the Wednesday seminar. He arrived with 15 minutes to spare. We had another strained conversation. He agreed we would keep in touch while I was away. He was much thinner even than 5 weeks before. I was worried. I talked to my colleagues. Jeff and others said they would try to draw him out about his health, about his work.

While I was away through the first 5 months of 2003 two graduate students wrote to me about T.S., as well as his advisor. T.S. seemed to get back into his MA research they said, but he was not looking well and he had moved out of University housing. I worried that he was having financial problems. He sent me another chapter outline in response to my e-mails in which I talked about the war against Iraq and how it was being reported in the USA, about the local well supported soccer teams with small girls and boys I saw in our neighbourhood, about my communication with his old soccer-history mentor D.M. who was now living in the USA. He replied perfunctorily and sent me one-liners or did not reply at all.

I returned in May. T.S. was too sick to come to the first seminar. I e-mailed him and asked if we could meet. He said he was not feeling well these days, when I called him at work the next week after I received no reply. In the mean time a colleague and I were helping a younger graduate student with the collapse of his family as a result of the terrible suffering brought on by AIDS, of his elder brother who was the family's major wage earner and a powerful family leader. This man died in a few weeks and his death brought T.S. back into my world again. T.S., who knew the grieving graduate student fairly well, began to write to me and to him about how he could help, saying he wished he had more money to offer to the funeral and family support fund, and registering his empathy and emotional support.

By now I strongly suspected T.S. was beginning to suffer from AIDS-related illnesses. I asked my colleagues for advice, including medical practitioners and a male HIV nurse on campus. I made sure that he and all our graduates were invited to a series of meetings about University treatment plans and access to the Sinikithemba centre at McCord. In hours of meetings at work and in private venues our younger graduate student dealing with the loss of his brother spoke tearfully through his bereavement of the silences and obfuscations in his family over the previous two years about HIV/AIDS—about his brother's refusal to seek help from his company's well established HIV support fund, about his brother's rejection of biomedical help, about his brother's eventual huge investment in the cure of a local healer which did not relieve his symptoms, about the impossibility of speaking about testing, treatment, or support around HIV/AIDS in his family or his peri-urban township home area. All those hours we spent in private conversation we were not alone. All across Durban and South Africa researchers across the medical and social sciences and humanities, religious leaders, many NGO workers and politicians, many artists and musicians and media experts were asking about why our HIV response was so confused, so slow, so ineffective. We were banging our heads over why South Africa's president was closing down the space to move against this syndrome, why our Health Department was engaged in such a violent tango with interested and committed AIDS dissidents, why the TAC was being vilified, why our students and friends and colleagues were terrified of what people called "this long illness" and closing off the possibility for so many of successfully living with HIV/AIDS.

On June 10 2003 at 9:38 am I sent this e-mail to T.S.:

Dear T.S.,

Your letter touched me to the heart. I wonder if I can use this opportunity to open a discussion with you about your needs and your life. T.S., do you remember back in 1999 or so when we had a long talk that one day near the photocopy machine in the room at the back of the dept before there was a lab on the other side?

I feel as if your life has moved on and we do not know each other like we used to. Also I have been away for such a while. But I can see that you are not as sparkly and happy as before and I wonder if there are things I myself could do to help, or the Dept. You are not well. We care for you as colleagues and as fellow historians. Let us work with you to reach a healthier state if we can?

Please can you offer me some times that I could meet with you privately? Off-campus? We could go for a cup of tea at the Botanic gardens one day maybe when you have a half day off or to the coffee place near to ... [your work]? When would it suit you?

All best wishes,


He replied. We set up our meeting and we talked and talked. I thought the silences were broken that day. Some of them were. Many of them were not. After several weeks of work and therapy and talking and help and tests and medications and money discussions, T.S. decided to create a network of disclosure around his condition. He was HIV positive. He had known since December 1999. A few weeks after being accepted into the soccer team he had been tested as part of his professional medical review. He received what he recalled as a very brief and confused counseling session. He was not taken up onto the team. He had returned home for a painful month in which he contemplated his life and eventually mustered the energy to come back to campus. He never told any friend, any family member, any partner. He came back to Durban and he tried to fit in again. He could not. Everyone thought it was because of his disappointment about the soccer team alone. He thought he had been given a death sentence, he waited to die. Then slowly, slowly, as he did not die, as he ate better and got on with his new job and his research, he wondered if HIV existed, if there had been a conspiracy, if he had been lied to. Seeing how we all responded to the death of the brother of his fellow graduate student, he said, made him think again. And he was worried about his bad hacking cough, and his constant weight loss. He said he wanted help now. He would work with the McCord people and the University HIV Clinic staff and the excellent male nurse there, and the psychologist, and the support staff. We would work with him. We would create a nutrition support group around him as he was too weak to shop and had so little energy to cook, we would help him raise some additional funds, we would help to remind him of stories of people living well with HIV, and we would talk about his work with him. He agreed to disclose his condition to a few key people at work as well. This was real headway. People at work knew already implicitly—now they could help him more effectively and give him work he could do on days he felt sick and needed time off or a simple task. He could get access to some benefits and keep his job while getting well.

We thought we had turned the corner. I called upon help from every level of HIV knowledgeable person known to me and my colleagues: psychologists assisting people with AIDS, doctor friends, nurses, the university executives, student support groups, and from his friends. Talking with him many times a day, meeting his partner, moving into and around his home, intense activities of support began. How exhausting for him!

In the middle of the whirligig of tests and TB treatments and care and support groups and counseling, T.S. went missing. He just disappeared one day in the middle of a series of connected planned meetings and sessions. His cell phone was off. In one weekend of frantic searching we realized we had known him rather less than we thought through the difficult past month of intense contact and talk. We knew by then that T.S. had a partner of a few years standing. She was also ill but seemed relieved that we were able to offer her some help as well. She was not as sick as T.S. but also needed some urgent chest treatment. What was T.S. up to the very weekend of his scheduled key treatments? T.S. had, by clinical standards and also by the reckoning of his work and research colleagues, decided to do the worst possible thing: he had decided to marry his girlfriend. Not a quick ceremony in the local magistrate's court, but a very elaborate double wedding conducted as a secret to all-but-one of his University friends and associates in Durban, and far less clandestinely, in a large wedding at his home.

He told us later these were his motivations: his family had noticed he was getting ill 2 years before; his mother tried to get him to a clinic and then to a local healer all through his July vacation when he was supposed to be working on his oral histories that year; his mother's sister was an ex-nurse—but now she was retired and working as a traditional healer. She gave T.S. various herbal, religious and clinical medications, part of which he and the Hospital later speculated could have been older TB medications from the 1980s. He did not get better. His mother became convinced that his illness was due to a complex nexus involving family-related social disorders and the ill wishes of people who wanted to cause them harm in their home area, and T.S.'s university success needed urgent strengthening-up. One of the steps towards this was to marry his partner. But this marriage had to be done the "right way". This would involve huge amounts of money—in relation to what T.S. earned and his family's meager cash income. Most of the money T.S. had been given in the weeks leading up to this (for his treatments and for his food, for transport and for moving into better accommodation, by all of us: fellow students and academic staff and his circle of support), was in fact siphoned into the marriage plans. No one connected to the University could be told about the marriage plans in Durban except one trusted colleague. Not me of course, nor the nurses or doctors who were caring for him, nor other graduate students in the know.

When this whole saga was pieced together T.S. was in hospital in an ICU and then a high care ward in Durban. After a week of absence he had suddenly made a cell phone call to an old soccer friend from the University. T.S. had been inside a stopped mini bus taxi at the side of the road late one night in down town Durban. He had been on his way back from the wedding in Zululand—without his new wife who was required to stay there and tend to her new parents-in-law. He was in a state of collapse but a kind taxi driver, not knowing what to do with him, had fed him and kept him warm and when he could speak asked him who he could phone on T.S.'s behalf. Luckily T.S. knew the number of this old friend by heart. This friend had rushed to fetch him in a car and had taken him to the local public hospital. We had him transferred to McCord Hospital. A week of panic had been felt by all his friends in Durban. I cannot know what kind of a week T.S. had lived through. He was able to tell us simply this: that he was under tremendous psychological pressure during this time and felt beyond exhausted. But he also communicated this: he was very, very proud to be married to his wife and he felt he had made the right decision. All through the weeks while his Durban-based network was setting up medical care for him, T.S. was run ragged organizing a two part wedding in secret: one part in his poor city neighbourhood in Durban involving a Church wedding, then a ceremony at a hired hall with smart clothes, fancy food and a long guest list, as well as music and transport costs; and as a second part, organizing a follow up the next day with an entourage moving to Melmouth, many hours drive away for the slaughter of the suitable beast and another ceremony with local officials and family members. Now that these ceremonies had been completed, T.S. said to us, his amazed and concerned Durban friends, his mother could visit him in Durban and she could be involved in his health recovery. Now he could focus on taking his medications. He said he was so relieved he no longer would have to lie to a lot of people about where he was and what he was doing.

It is amazing to look back and recall my level of HIV/AIDS knowledge before and then during and after this period. To try to prepare ourselves for supporting T.S. and maybe ourselves and others those weeks, we asked one of Durban's leading AIDS physicians to come and address our small Department and our graduate students. We knew more about the workings and complexities of CD counts and HIV medication then any of us imagined by the end of the week, about issues around ethical support and disclosure, about holistic adjuncts and commitments especially nutrition and rest, about side effects of drugs, about costs, about options around clinical sites, about University rules and procedures.

What did it help? T.S.'s CD-4 count was below 30 by the middle of October. He suffered cerebral meningitis in November. He was repeatedly hospitalized. At certain times he lost any sense of where he was and was disoriented and terrified. He lost more weight. Different treatments and medications were tried. He had the best doctors and nurses in Durban. He was moved to a hospice for palliative care and pain relief. He died there, at the Dream Centre in Pinetown, on 4 December 2003. His mother and family and friends and colleagues had all visited him every day for 2 weeks. This is part of the message our Department sent out the next morning on our LAN. How shallow and inadequate these words seem now a year and 5 months later:

Dec 5 11:33

We are so sad to report to our University Community that T.S. ... passed away yesterday morning after an illness bravely born. We send our love and best wishes to his wife, ... his family in Melmouth, and his friends, colleagues and fellow graduate students in the Faculty of Human Sciences. T.S. completed his BA here and then his Honours in History. He was nearing the end of his Masters thesis research when he fell ill. His colleagues and friends in History mourn his passing: he was a dedicated young historian—working on a history of Melmouth over the 20th century; he was a hard working archivist at ... [the University archives]; he was a gifted football player; he was a loving husband. We will miss you T.S.! Hamba Kahle [Good-bye isiZulu].

Post Script:

We learned a lot in 2003 as individuals, as a Department, and as part of a University learning "how to be" in a time of AIDS. By mid-December the University's HIV/AIDS plans were much more firmly in place, and although serious problems of access and information-flow continued through early 2004, we all felt there was progress made. "We all", including the TAC on campus—whose unstinting work on behalf of T.S. and others was greatly appreciated - but also the University clinic staff, especially the HIV nursing staff, as well as the University AIDS support staff in the special office created for this purpose. For the first time in 2004 we began discussing agenda items on HIV/AIDS treatment and support, as well as continuing discussion around teaching and research issues related to HIV/AIDS at Faculty meetings. The costs of 2003 and the years leading up to it were heavy. T.S. and many of his peers lost their lives. There were huge emotional and psychological costs for families and friends, and there were costs—emotional, material and physical - even for the University "families" of these students and colleagues. Speaking only about this latter circle of people—University kin—it is clear that most of us have not recovered fully from T.S.'s death, either from the events leading up to it or the shock of rapid action and intervention, and the lingering questions that remained with us long afterwards. We have long stopped talking about our thoughts concerning his will and intentions, his agency. We used to talk about this a lot. Our feelings of helplessness and frustration have not eased though. We read news stories weekly about choice and the efficacy of different treatments and life courses, and we wonder at T.S.'s last series of decisions, and at our own. I wonder especially about my role in his disclosure and his treatment and our group response to his illness and then his decline and death. We are still carrying some of the financial burdens garnered in late 2003 and in the energy-draining months that followed; months spent traipsing around the dingy public spaces of the South African Home Affairs Department—establishing his widow's bona fides as well as his University death benefits. His emotionally and financially bereft wider family, and their claims and their immediate needs, pressed on members of the Department heavily at this time. No University or wider support group exists for this level of support, then or now. We wrote letters to obtain state aid for his family and we achieved some small measure of relief for some of his kin. In December 2003 for the first time since 1995 we held no end of year party. No one could celebrate and mourn at the same time. But in May 2004, a year ago, we did just that: last year 5 women students graduated with advanced degrees from our small Department. We decided to hold a huge party in their honour, to celebrate life, their lives, and all of us in History at this University. And we all remembered T.S. who should have been graduating with his peers. But we also focused on living that evening, and on remembering why we must not be silent in the present, either in the face of terrible suffering and death, or about joyful achievements and life.

This piece was written in memory of T.S. who was born on 20 January 1977 and died on 4 December 2003.

Catherine Burns is a senior lecturer in History in the School of Anthropology, Gender and Historical Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She has been conducting research into the history of health and healing in Southern Africa for over a decade and has published on the history of nursing, medicine, herbalism, midwifery, breast-feeding, mission hospitals as well as life histories of South African women. In addition to History, she teaches in Gender Studies and the School of Medicine and in the past has been director of the Gender Studies and History programmes. She supervises graduate student work from several disciplines around the theme of 'social history' in general, and around the theme of 'health in a changing context' specifically, and is part of a research team mapping the history of health practice, health and healing therapies, and health education in the region of KwaZulu-Natal for the last 150 years.


1. Initials have been used throughout this piece when referring to specific people to protect the identities and privacy of those individuals and their families.

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