One reason that southern Africa has higher HIV rates than other poor regions is that it is shaped by a unique system of rotating migration. During the colonial era, European capitalists needed a steady supply of cheap black workers for their mines, plantations and factories. To get it, they restricted Africans’ access to arable land and imposed taxes to force them onto the labour market. But Europeans didn’t want African workers to settle permanently in urban areas. Instead, they ferried workers in on a temporary basis and then sent them back to the “native reserves” when they were used up.
The rotating migration system allowed Europeans to rake in huge profits. Companies could pay migrant workers much less than what permanent urbanites required to support their families, since the difference was covered by unpaid subsistence activities in the reserves. This system continues to this day: for instance, unskilled workers in South Africa come from as far as Malawi and return home as infrequently as once a year.
When HIV hit the continent in the early 1980s it spread rapidly through these migration networks. It was an epidemic waiting to happen. In South Africa, HIV prevalence is nearly three times higher among migrant workers than among non-migrants. Migration increases high-risk sexual behaviour among men who are away for long periods of time, and this increases HIV prevalence among their female partners tenfold.
These high prevalence rates have to do with the conditions that characterize migrant destinations, like mines and plantations. These are zones of hyper-exploitation: high injury rates, depression and loneliness among workers mixed with the steady supply of alcohol and prostitutes that managers dish out to suppress dissent encourages unsafe sex. Poor healthcare services in these zones means that even easily curable STIs go untreated, which makes HIV transmission up to 400 percent more likely. This is why the highest prevalence rates in the world are found at migrant workplaces, sometimes reaching as high as 70 percent.
If people know about these risks, then why migrate in the first place? The short answer is that they usually have no choice. Remittances sent home by migrants are critical to household survival, and many households have no other source of income; they cannot afford to forfeit such staple earnings in favour of geographical solidarity. When families are forcibly strung across the subcontinent, “abstinence” and “fidelity” – the values promoted by HIV prevention campaigns – become impossible ideals for both men and women.
mental health game: