By Ngqabutho Mpofu
Dressed in a Robert Sobukwe Dashiki and trendy shoes, Thando Jack draws
gazes from the mainly white upper middle-class folk in Cape Town who can afford to be taking a stroll in the Company Gardens during a week day. They obviously try not to but there is something about him that captivates them.
When we start engaging, it becomes clear that it Is a genuine sense of love and concern about members of a community that embraced him that makes Thando do the work he does. It is alarming figures such as those released by UNAIDS that spur him on. According to UNAIDS, Men who have sex with Men (MSM) globally are a staggering 24 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. A 2015 study in South Africa found that 33.9% of gay-identified men in a research sample of 378 black MSM in the historic township of Soweto were found to be HIV positive. This is compounded by the finding that between 88% and 94% of MSM in South Africa were reported to not know their HIV status, in a context where high levels of concurrent sexual partners among the Soweto cohort, for instance, was reported by 73% of respondents.
It is these figures and his own lived experience as an MSM that led 28-year-old Thando Jack to becoming an activist since his late teens. His extreme passion for ensuring that MSM access affordable, quality health care services is clear from the moment he starts engaging.
Working as a data capturer at a prominent men’s health non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Cape Town, South Africa, Thando is at the coalface of clinical consultations focusing on ensuring that data involving HIV tests results, on the treatment programme, including the rate of defaulting, and on the outcomes of TB test results are meticulously captured. The organisation runs programmes in Cape Town and Johannesburg, as a result of the high MSM populations and the corresponding high risk of infections in these two cities.
Despite many gains, including a progressive Constitution and law reform that allows the LGBTI+ community to enjoy the same rights as heterosexual people, Thando is worried about numerous factors that continue to affect MSM’s access to healthcare services in South Africa, including stigma. “Many health workers are still not informed or sensitive about MSM issues when providing healthcare despite the numerous interventions of organisations such as Anova Health and Health4Men, who conduct sensitization trainings in health facilities across South Africa”, says Thando. “Just from engaging with a clinician in history taking and explaining how you got anal warts or Gonorrhea, you can see from the reaction that you are being discriminated against. It’s sad. You would hope that someone who has the courage to get out of bed to seek medical health care is not treated that way”, he says.
Sensitisation trainings occur for health practitioners in both public and private practice. The programme has a website that directs MSM to health practitioners who are MSM friendly. These are services that do involve greater awareness, tolerance of others and less stigmatization of health seekers on the basis of their sexual orientation. For Thando, it is imperative that programmes such as these are amplified to reach areas beyond just Johannesburg and Cape Town, as MSM in other areas will be better placed to seek health care services knowing they won’t face the discrimination they often still face. “There is still a need for more public and private health care workers to undergo this MSM sensitization training throughout the country, as only a certain portion have gone through this programme”, he says.
Ivan Toms clinic in Cape Town, which Thando highlights as an essential health care facility in improving the fight against HIV amongst MSM and the site from which they work has about 13 000 patients who leave their own communities and local clinics from areas as far flung as Paarl, Atlantis, Fish Hoek, Wellington, as well as nearby areas such as Khayelitsha, Phillipi, Gugulethu and Kraaifontein in order to access critical health care services from practitioners who are MSM friendly. They acknowledge the importance of the right to food through providing food and/or energy drinks to underweight patients in their road to health.
Having been born and raised in Gugulethu, and realizing the continued stigma faced by MSMs in his community when attempting to access healthcare, a critical worry of Thando’s is that safe spaces such as the health facility he works for will have to shut down their doors as a result of potential funding cuts from prominent international donor organisations. This could quite conceivably result in many defaulting and in an increase in avoidable deaths of many people, some of whom make up his close community.
The external stigma; continued fear of help seeking among men and the potential funding crisis form a deadly cocktail that would effectively place the gains made among MSM through the ‘universal test and treat’ policy from the national Department of Health in jeopardy.
For Thando, “when it comes to the needs of the MSM population and significantly reducing the rate of infections, it is important to find innovative ways and systems to help in fighting HIV. We need to keep up with new technologies and knowledge to do so, something we aren’t really doing at the moment.”
This article is part of a Spotlight special series on people who form part of so-called key populations.
 UNAIDS (2017), “Blind Spot: Reaching out to Men and Boys – Addressing a Blind Spot in the Response to HIV”, PDF.
 Lane T, Raymond HF, Dladla S, Rasethe J, Struthers H, McFarland W, et al. “High HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in Soweto, South Africa: Results from the Soweto Men’s Study” in AIDS Behav. 2011;15(3):626–634.
 Ibid and Burrell E, Mark D, Grant R, Wood R, Bekker LG, “Sexual risk behaviours and HIV-1 prevalence among urban men who have sex with men in Cape Town, South Africa” in Sexual Health. 2010; 7 (2):149–153.
 Ivan Toms Clinic (2018), http://search.info4africa.org.za/Organisation?Id=83901., accessed 10 July 2018.
 Department of Health, “Re: Implementation of the Universal Test and Treat Strategy for HIV Positive Patients and Differentiated Care for Stable Patients”, http://www.sahivsoc.org/Files/22%208%2016%20Circular%20UTT%20%20%20Decongestion%20CCMT%20Directorate.pdf, accessed 10 July 2018.