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Authors : Mandisa Mbali, Mark Hunter
Title: Yesterday: Provoking Pity or Politics
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 2005

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Source: Yesterday: Provoking Pity or Politics

no. ns 2, June 2005


Mandisa Mbali, Researcher at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu Natal, and Mark Hunter, Department of Geography, University of California at Berkeley [1]

Yesterday, the first ever isiZulu feature film,has met with huge international acclaim, winning standing ovations and tearful reviews. The film tells the story of a young KwaZulu-Natal mother called Yesterday who falls ill and discovers that she is HIV positive.

But we question the barrage of uncritical praise directed towards the film. Yesterday presents a passive and apolitical view of the AIDS pandemic. And it reinforces rather than challenges prominent racialized and gendered stereotypes that circulate within the HIV/AIDS establishment.

In places, Yesterday, is certainly a moving production. Already nominated as South Africa's official Oscar entry, the film's success has caused many to turn a blind eye to its dubious representations of rural life.

Has anyone, for instance, ever seen a taxi in South Africa depart with only one passenger? Where in the film's depiction of rural life are the Gogo's, the lifeblood of rural South Africa? Why is the Sangoma presented as a rather exotic, laughable, figure while the white Zulu-speaking medical doctor embodies such poise and knowledge?

And why aren't antiretrovirals mentioned? Are such details irrelevant in unchanging "timeless" Africa? Indeed, the protagonist Yesterday seems to have no family, no history and the film flattens African women into helpless 'AIDS victims'.

These and other stereotypes led Bheki Ka Mncube to comment in the Natal Witness that the film is a "missed opportunity to produce a great South African film, devoid of neo-colonial stereotypes".

Such criticisms might seem like nit picking when the film tackles the important life and death subject of HIV. Yet well-funded AIDS interventions often avoid prickly political issues and are reluctant to challenge dominant paradigms.

One of these is the male-migrant-infector-model. Migrant men such as Yesterday's husband move to towns, become infected with STIs and then infect their wives, so the story goes.

This model of infection was popularised in the 1940s in the wake of the syphilis epidemic and it undoubtedly still has much validity today. But we question its overriding endurance and dominance at the expense of other social dynamics driving the epidemic. The unproblematic use of the male migrant model to 'explain AIDS' has a lot to do with the way that researchers and the media tend to perpetuate representations of men as mobile, sexually active, and infectors and women as the reverse.

The irony is that KwaZulu-Natal has stimulated some of the most important challenges to the credibility of this model. Five years ago a study of discordant couples - couples where only one partner is HIV positive - conducted by Brown University's Mark Lurie found that in 40% of the cases it was actually rural women and not their migrant partners who were HIV positive.

And the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies based in rural Hlabisa has found extremely high mobility rates for rural women. By recording short-term patterns of migrancy often not detected in national studies, they found that rural women are actually more mobile than rural men.

One of the driving forces behind women's intensified mobility is devastating levels of unemployment. Linked to both unemployment and mobility is the unprecedented decline in marriage — less than 30% of African men and women in South Africa today are in wedlock. Such dynamics foster complex sexual relationships that encompass violence, money, and love in ways that belie the stereotypes portrayed in Yesterday.

It is also dangerously depoliticizing for the filmto simply celebrate African women's "resilience". This leaves untold the story of how South African women are leading the fight for access to life-saving HIV treatment through their prominent role in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

Many South African women have taken action in anger at government denialism and pharmaceutical companies' blocking of generic HIV drugs. They are not merely staying at home and nursing their sick men, they are holding government to its promises to rollout HIV treatment and fighting for their right to life.

Yesterday will no doubt raise awareness about the AIDS pandemic in South Africa, and this is much needed. But will middle class audiences simply return home comfortable in the knowledge that they now 'understand' AIDS in KZN and that by buying a cinema ticket have 'done their bit'?

From government indifference, to pharmaceutical profiteering, to deepening gendered inequalities, the AIDS pandemic operates on a highly contestable social terrain. Yesterday fails to challenge dominant preconceptions about the pandemic or, god forbid, actually stimulate political awareness rather then pity among audiences.

Mandisa Mbali is an AIDS researcher and activist based at the Centre for CivilSociety at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.  She has a masters degree in Historical Studies.  Her research has focused on the history of AIDS policy-making and AIDS activism in South Africa. Her AIDS activism has focused on advocacy for wider access to HIV treatment.  Mbali is also a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).  She has published scholarly and journalistic articles dealing with gender and sexuality in the history of AIDS activism, government AIDS denialism and the emergence of the TAC.  She was recently awarded a Rhodes scholarship to pursue a doctorate in History at Oxford University. 

Mark Hunter is currently completing his PhD in the Department of Geography,University of California at Berkeley. His research focuses on the social roots of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa through an historical-ethnography of one area, Mandeni, situated on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.


1. An earlier version of this review, under the title "Provoking Pity or Politics" was published on the web-site of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal,28,10,1834 and is republished here with the authors' permission. A version of the review was published as "Yesterday's Stereotypes are a Thing of the Past." Sunday Tribune, October 17, 2004.

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