South Africa: The (Re) Making Of Men

IRIN Plus News

Manhood might be hard to define but South African media make it even harder, according to editors of a new book, who argue that negative coverage of men is doing more harm than good, especially when it comes to HIV. Now they are looking to rewrite masculinity in a country that ranks among the most gender inequitable in the world. 

(Un)covering Men: Rewriting Masculinity and Health in South Africa is a compilation of works by journalism fellows through Anova Health Institute’s HIV and Media Project, originally the brainchild of noted South African journalist Anton Harber and HIV researcher and programme implementer Helen Struthers, who co-edited the book. 

The book’s other co-editor, Melissa Meyers, characterized the 211-page book as a bid to combat stereotypes of men perpetuated by the media and to create a more nuanced portrayal of men by telling stories around issues such as fatherhood, men-who-have-sex-with-men 
(MSM) and traditional male circumcision. 

“Writing about different kinds of men involves looking at all these different stereotypes or men - men as Lotharios, as risk-seekers, as domineering,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. “By contrasting these stories, we were able to show that the current media engagement with men and notions of masculinities is disturbingly shallow.” 

“We’ve looked at how that might affect health-seeking behaviours,” said Meyers, who also coordinates the HIV and AIDS Media Project for Anova. “So we’ve taken that conversation and put it in the context of the most pressing health concern in this country and one that’s most linked to ideas of masculinity - HIV.” 

South Africa continues to battle high levels of gender inequality, ranking in the bottom half of all countries surveyed in the 2011 United Nations Development Programmes’ Gender Inequality Index. In 2009, a study by South Africa’s Medical Research Council (MRC) made international headlines after it found that one in four South African men surveyed admitted to having raped a woman in their lives. 

Using the same data set, researchers also revealed last year that about 10 percent of South African men had experienced sexual violence at the hands of another man. The overwhelming majority of men who reported sexually abusing another man also reported being violent towards their female partners - an HIV risk factor for women in a country where HIV prevalence is about 12 percent. 

Looking at the man in the mirror 

Statistics like this may contribute to men’s bad rap, but stereotypes portrayed in the media are hurting those working to change men’s bad behaviour, according to Mandla Ndlovu, who works for Johns Hopkins Health and Education in South Africa. 

To combat high levels of gender-based violence, John Hopkins launched its Brothers for Life programme in 2009. Designed to re-enforce positive gender norms, the programme set about trying to promote positive male role models, but Ndlovu admits it was hard in the beginning, 

“It was difficult to find materials to use at the start of Brothers for Life,” Ndlovu told IRIN/PlusNews. “You were always finding resources that pointed a finger at men instead of telling us what made them tick.” 

“I’ll be the first to admit a lot of our social ills can really be [tied to] how masculinities have been framed - a man is the boss, what a man should be,” he added. “But it’s important if we want to solve the same social ills that we talk to the very same men and walk with them in their journey.” 

Thabisile Dlamini, a journalist, actor and author, wrote about HIV and fatherhood - a topic close to her heart after the loss of her own father to AIDS-related illnesses in 2008. At 20 years old, Dlamini was left to care for her younger siblings. 

“A father is seen as a provider. He leads the family. He’s ‘the man,’” she said. “When your father is HIV-positive and dying, when he cannot provide for the family, it destroys (some) families completely.” 

“I remember interviewing one family where the father was HIV-positive and had had a stroke so he was disabled. He couldn’t work anymore,” she said. “There were issues of resentment there. I remember sitting down with a father and daughter, and we actually had to postpone the meeting because tensions were so high.” 

But Dlamini said she also saw some men’s HIV-positive diagnosis bring families together as they rallied to support fathers or as fathers looked back on their lives as absentee dads and were moved to rekindle bonds with their children. 

What’s left unsaid 

Pieter van Zyl, a senior writer for South African media house Media24's family magazines, used the opportunity to write about gay men and MSM. He spent three weeks in Cape Town's Guglethu township interviewing MSM and gay men in 2009. 

He produced five stories about issues faced by MSM such as discordance, disclosure, and balancing marriages to women with desires to be with men. 

The book provides an outlet for some of the stories South African outlets would not run. More than a year after the stories were written, four of the six stories remain unpublished, even by van Zyl's own Media24 Afrikaans-language magazine, which van Zyl said has a large gay readership. 

According to van Zyl, while he found resistance to the stories' same-sex subject matter among mainstream media houses, outlets within the gay community were also reluctant to run HIV-related copy they saw as 'depressing.' 

Finally for some contributors, such as clinical psychologist Mthetho Tshemese, the work he explored regarding sexuality, masculinity and traditional male circumcision within his Xhosa culture has cemented his interested in working with young men. 

He’s started a programme at his former high school in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province to talk to young men about sex, sexuality and HIV prevention. 

“I want them to have the space to reflect on the kind of masculinities they want to embrace,” he told IRIN/PlusNews. “There comes a time, even though we embrace rituals about who we are, [when] we have to start thinking about that that means for us as individuals because all the things we do as men, we do mostly in our individual spaces.”