Educating Citizens and
HIV/AIDS: Challenges for South Africa
Susan J. Goetz, Ed.D.*
Imagine a “typical” American college that has a total
population of 6,000 people. This population includes students, staff,
faculty, and administrators. Of this group 25% or 1,500 people on
campus are HIV positive or living with full-blown AIDS. What effect
does this have on the college to educate students?
This may seem to be an improbable scenario for the United
States. It is, however, a real and present scenario for education
systems in South Africa. In January, the author traveled with 20
students registered for a global search for justice course to
Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Among the many facts,
impressions, experiences and visual images we brought home with us, the
affect of the apartheid era Bantu Education legislation and the current
prevalence of HIV/AIDS remain two of the most lasting.
The availability of structured, consistent, regular education
has suffered two waves of disruption that results in two generations of
South Africans living without the benefit of education. Without
education, they are jobless, living in squatter camps, dying of AIDS and
The crisis of HIV/AIDS is evident throughout the country.
The most graphic evidence of the disease is in the cemeteries. New
graves rise up from the ground. On Saturdays when most of the burials
take place, someone is needed to direct the traffic moving one funeral
party forward while holding others back until a roadway is cleared.
Orphanages, a previously unknown institution among southern African
cultures, are needed. Those that exist cannot house all the children
who need housing and nurturing.
There is controversy around the current Minister of Health
and the current President of South Africa because statements made at the
international HIV/AIDS conference and their reluctance to make
retroviral medications easily available. Community activists are
challenging the government policy on HIV/AIDS. Many organizations
provide community-based clinics.
HIV/AIDS has had a crippling effect on education in South
Africa. Parents with HIV/AIDS are unable to work and unable to pay
school fees or buy books and uniforms for their children. Teenagers
living with HIV are often ill and unable to attend school on a regular
basis. HIV/AIDS appeared early in universities. Both faculty and
students have high incidence of the disease. With fewer students at
university and with young educated professionals dying in unprecedented
numbers, the future leadership for South Africa is compromised. The
struggle for the current government is to educate the population about
AIDS prevention, care for those with the disease, and prepare for a
future with where one in four workers will die young.
Another impact on education in South Africa began on June 16,
1976, with the youth uprising that began as a protest to teaching
Afrikaans in all of the schools. Marching students were met on the
street by armed police, and violence broke out. Children were killed.
That day marked the beginning of the uprising, years of violence and
protest. Many of the youth involved in the protest never returned to
school. While the oppressive government finally came to an end, the
individuals involved in the uprising missed an education. Today, people
in their forties and fifties are still without a formal education. This
compounds the impact HIV/AIDS has on education in the country.
In a country that has ample natural resources, boundless
beauty, a climate that is neither too hot nor too cold year ‘round, it
is ironic to know that the one missing attribute is a well-educated and
healthy population. During the time we spent in South Africa with
students we heard a great deal about the emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention
and treatment, far less about education; yet it is education that is
desperately needed to not only provide people with facts and information
about the disease but also to create a population of educated
professionals to insure a brighter future for the country. In talking
with people in South Africa and visiting the cemetery, it became obvious
that it is the 20- to 40-year old population, the working professionals,
who are hardest hit by AIDS. We left South Africa feeling that
educational prioritization is key to the future vitality of the country.
The aspiration of South African parents for their children is
similar to that of immigrant parents in the United States who want their
children to have the education they never had. It is similar to the
aspirations of parents of first generation college/university U.S.
students – the first college educated person in the family. The lack of
an educated population is visible in South Africa today. The effects
HIV/AIDS is visible in South Africa today. The country’s challenge is to
have both educated and healthy citizens. South Africa’s future may well
depend on how this challenge is met.
Susan J. Goetz is an Associate Professor at The College of St.
Catherine, St. Paul, MN