AIDS2018: Humans in the Age of HIV- “There was no one who came to visit them at their homes”
By Ngqabutho Mpofu
Ronnie came out in the early 1980s, telling his friends and sister that he was homosexual. This was not an easy thing to do, given the traditional Xhosa culture that he is from. He credits his support network for helping him come through that period in his life. Today he works in Observatory in Cape Town as a youth programme coordinator at a child and human rights programme.
He has been closely involved in issues affecting Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) for a long time, including as a (now former) board member of the Triangle Project, which focused on health issues affecting the LGBTI community.
Over the years he has witnessed the deaths of many comrades and friends as a result of HIV/AIDS related causes. “Most of the people that were in my (age) group have passed on because there was no support from government, they had no health support, there was no one who came to visit them at their homes, so they died in isolation”, says Ronnie.
He acknowledges that much has changed in the over 30 years since he came out, including the formation of initiatives run by the State and non-governmental organisations such as the Ivan Toms clinic, with programmes specifically tailored for MSM, which have yielded great results in terms of help-seeking and greater access to health care amongst MSM.
Yet, Ronnie says there is still a very long way to go. Most of these health facilities are very far from the people who need them, which is problematic given the high levels of unemployment and poverty in the country. “Government needs to bring the services closer to the people through creating satellite clinics tailored for MSM. Unfortunately, we are still struggling with stigmatization and prejudice in South Africa against the LGBTI community in public health facilities”. This critical problem, which is not only limited to health care practitioners, but includes the attitudes of front line staff such as security guards, receptionists and cleaners, continues to severely stymie the country’s fight to attain its overall goal of an AIDS free population.
Ronnie argues that the state should implement mass sensitization campaigns so that staff in health facilities can acknowledge the LGBTI community and ensure that health care spaces are not spaces that they feel they cannot enter.
Community sensitization is also important, says Ronnie, as he has been heavily involved in community dialogues, educating them about key populations. He cites the important work done by Anova Health, which rolled out workshops in shebeens, a South African colloquial term much like the American ‘speakeasy’, a place mainly frequented by men who want to drink alcohol. Anova Health has sought to increase help seeking and foster tolerance in a country where men have been notorious for their role as perpetrators of violence.
Ronnie argues that another possible way that the State could significantly broaden its reach in terms of access to healthcare is to employ MSM from within communities as community health care workers, as they have greater access to MSM specifically and the broader LGBTI community that other health care practitioners would not be afforded.
The critical right to food is also extremely important to Ronnie, having seen his comrades waste away in the past. In a country where poverty has led to about 12 million people going hungry, Ronnie harks back to the Black Consciousness strategies of community upliftment projects through the establishment of vegetable gardens in order to be able to take one’s pills with a full stomach.
Ronnie shows no signs of slowing down. He hopes to pass on his knowledge to younger activists to join the fight for access to quality, affordable and dignified health care for MSM and other key populations.
This article is part of a Spotlight special series on people who form part of so-called key populations.
 Avert, “Men who have Sex with Men (MSM), HIV and AIDS”, https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/key-affected-populations/men-sex-men#footnote1_epqbh49, accessed 16 July 2018 and MSMGF (2013) ‘MSM in Sub-Saharan Africa: Health, Access & HIV’