What's in a South African man?

Posted: 10 October 2002

Author: Anso Thom

Despite 20 years of devastating HIV/AIDS in South Africa, many young men have never heard of the disease - and many feel a macho sense of gender superiority in relation to the opposite sex. Now, one man with a mission is trying to change that.

It's 11am on Tuesday and in the brightly painted purple and green Monwabisi hall in Langa, Cape Town over 20 young men dressed in their Sunday best have gathered to discuss the finer details of the vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, "cherries", hugging and kissing, sex and romance.

Sitting on a chair in the centre of this circle is a young man, not that much older than those who have gathered. As the animated conversation veers from intense discussion to raucous laughter it is his job to steer it back to the key point - what it means to be a South African man.Khaya Nkontso

Khaya Nkontso (29), is a man with a mission, or rather as he likes to define it, "a calling".

As co-ordinator of the PPASA's Men as Partners programme (MAP), Khaya's job is to help men debate, understand and clarify the link between masculinity and the construction of male identity and the impact this has on their own lives as well as the rest of society.

Gender inequality

Experts have identified the gender stereotypes that men use to construct their identity as a key factor in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, domestic violence and rape

Khaya is aware of the enormity of the task and the fact that attitudes and perceptions around what it means to be a man are not easily changed or tweaked in a matter of a week.

"It is difficult, especially with Xhosa-speaking people where people interpret culture wrongly. Many men think the fact that they are the man gives them the right to be superior to their partners. Many men think that in a relationship they have the right to do anything," he says.

Khaya agrees that gender inequality contributes significantly to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"Some men think women have no right to question them about their partners or that it is okay to have unprotected sex and multiple partners," he opines.

These are values that are instilled from an early age when young boys are told they cannot cry and "need to act like men".

Initiation factor

In most cultures it is expected that men do not show emotion. This, says Khaya, contributes to a machismo where men believe they have a right to show their authority over women who are perceived as weaker.

One of the complications Khaya has encountered presenting his workshop in and around Cape Town is that many of the participants are still teenagers but because they have undergone Xhosa initiation they view themselves as fully-grown men.

Some women have complained that their sons or boyfriends return from "the bush" and are rude or bossy expecting to be deferred to.

"I don't think it (radically) changes any of the boys. If he was bossy before initiation he will become more bossy," Khaya said, adding that he didn't believe the initiation process changed the men's perception of relationships with the opposite sex.

But judging from the conversation and debate among the group of about 25, it was evident that parents are not talking to them about sex.

A diagram of a woman's reproductive system becomes the subject of heated discussion as the youngsters argue over the position of the fallopian tubes, cervix, vagina, uterus or ovaries.

Defining romance

Khaya, a slightly-built man, is clearly comfortable with the topic and watches and listens to the men patiently before explaining in great detail how the various parts function.

At times he has to raise his voice to give everyone an opportunity to speak.

Dressed in his "post-initiation uniform" - formal pants, a blazer, woolen cap and patent leather shoes - one of the youngsters is at great pains to try and convince the others why he believes his partner loves him if she shows signs of jealousy.

But the discussion soon turned to matters of the heart when the group was asked to define"a romantic relationship".

There were giggles all round as the men began to compile their list which included crooning a love song, writing or reciting poems, calling your partner "nice names" such as honey or sweetheart or simply telling her you love her.

Not all 'bad'

When men and women participate in joint workshops at a later stage Khaya found that many of the women complained that men were only interested in the physical aspects of the relationship and that they had no feeling for romance. Men, on the other hand, grumbled that it was they who "always have to run after the women".

Ultimately it is Khaya's aim to focus attention not just on gender but how this specifically contributes to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

But Khaya is at pains to point out that not all men are "bad".

"If you have six men, five will be understanding, but they need to be educated on the finer details," Khaya said

It is astounding that twenty years after the HI virus was first named and identified and despite years of HIV/AIDS education, there are people who are still unaware of it.

"I find that many people are not aware of HIV/AIDS or sexually transmitted infections and it is encouraging to be able to educate them and know you are having an impact,"said Khaya.

Cycle of death

Dr Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, emphasizes that gender inequality increases men's as well as women's vulnerability to AIDS.

"Cultural expectations pressure men into flaunting a kind of sexual athleticism: to be experienced and always interested in sex, to have many partners and to be heterosexual," she said.

Gupta feels that we need to re-examine notions of masculinity and femininity.

"If traditional norms are causing a cycle of death and disease of our young, and in fact are destroying families, households and communities, then these norms must change," Gupta says.

She says the time will come when people will perceive these norms as dysfunctional, and when something is recognized as dysfunctional social change occurs because societies want to survive.

"The tragedy is that most societies wait too long, so that destruction occurs on a large scale before change begins to happen."

Khaya Nkontso has decided not to wait.