Perpetuating the stigma

2008-02-22 00:00

Recently, one of our country’s music icons, Mandoza, took time off to appear on national television in order to publicly dismiss claims that he looked a little bit under the weather. A newspaper had run a story reporting that some of Mandoza’s fans were worried that he was not well. A pimple had been spotted on his face, his lips were red and he seemed to have lost weight. The observers noted that Mandoza, who had been an almost permanent feature at festivals since he achieved fame, was conspicuous by his absence from many festive-season gigs.

All of this was evidence that Mandoza was ill. It was insinuated that he could be HIV-positive, hence Mandoza’s appearance on national television to dismiss the talk as rubbish.

Mandoza is no small fry in the Kwaito musical pond. He is not only an award-winning star, but is one of the few artists in this genre who has a crossover appeal. In the eyes of his fans, he is more than just an artist — he represents attitudes to life in general. Perhaps this is why he rushed to the television studios.

With so many serious and interesting things happening in South Africa today, not much attention was paid to this episode. All of us had better things to worry about, such as load shedding and the situation in Kenya. Yet, this incident, from the initial newspaper report to Mandoza’s refutation of the story, tells us that there is something drastically wrong with our society. If left unchecked, incidents of this nature will undermine the very foundation of the society we are trying to build. It tells us that the fight against HIV/Aids continues to be an uphill battle because of the stigma that comes with it, a stigma that forces a world-renowned artist to publicly deny that he is HIV-positive.

Our Constitution guarantees a person’s right to privacy. This means that even those of us whose trade is exposing the truth and informing the public have a responsibility to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a manner that respects people’s privacy.

I do not know what scale the newspaper used to decide what was more important, exposing the concerns of Mandoza’s fans about his health or respecting Mandoza’s right to privacy, but I think it could have done a lot better regarding this story.

The newspaper could have been more circumspect because it should understand the confidentiality clause around a person’s health. If a person’s illness must be kept secret between that person and his or her doctor, it goes without saying that such information must not be divulged to the public.

However, on the bright side, the newspaper report has brought into the open the stigma around HIV/ Aids. Mandoza’s rush to the television studio to dismiss the rumours was a panic move. It was the act of a cornered human being who understands that if he does not challenge the rumours, the whispering campaign will continue. As a person whose success relies heavily on his public image, Mandoza understood that his very livelihood was at stake in a society that stigmatises those who are HIV-positive.

This should worry all of us.

This is even more worrying when one considers the reality of crass celebrity worshipping. If a person of Mandoza’s status sees fit to hotfoot it to a television studio to deny allegations that he is HIV-positive, one can only shudder to think what effect his actions have had on the many people who are living under a conspiracy of silence about the disease.

Not only has this episode done a lot of damage to the fight against the stigma attached to HIV, but it has raised serious questions about the necessity of the media to pursue headline-grabbing stories and its responsibility in the fight against this disease.

One wonders what would have happened if indeed Mandoza was HIV-positive. What would the newspapers have said? More importantly, how many ordinary people, with no claim to stardom, who are affected by the disease will now go underground for fear of being stigmatised as a result of the way HIV/Aids is approached by some among the media. The media possesses the power to build or destroy. Surely, it should be seen to be contributing to the building of our nation rather than its destruction. The area of HIV/Aids is a good place to start building.

• Harry Mchunu is a former journalist and is a general manager for communications with government. He writes in his personal capacity.

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