Our reflection this past week was largely centered on privilege—the way we engage with our privilege, how it compares to our privilege in the States, and so on. One thing that continued to come up was our challenge in grappling with our socioeconomic privilege here, staying in an upper class neighborhood and attending upper class restaurants and bars, while we are engaging with communities living within townships, where an absurd number of individuals are unemployed. This drastic contrast is further sharpened by the persistence of spatial apartheid here; upper class spaces are overwhelmingly white, while the townships are just about exclusively black. If our internships did not have us directly interacting with communities in townships, it would be relatively easy to live in blissful ignorance about the welfare of South Africa’s society.
When you go into the townships, though, there is no way to ignore the stark inequality. On Friday, we visited an area called Belville for a Wellness Day, where Sonke was performing HIV testing, condom distributions throughout the taxi rink, and overall wellness check-ups. From the start, it was a jarring experience, beginning with the fact that the area was bustling with people although it was the middle of a workday. As part of the Community Education and Mobilization Team, a key aspect of our job is to immerse ourselves in these communities; our supervisor is passionate about having us learn through hands-on experience, diving into situations that may feel uncomfortable and new.
There were times, though, when my discomfort with the environment reached a new level. At this Wellness Day, I was part of the team who distributed condoms along the street to the pedestrians and taxis. Having already done a similar thing a few weeks ago, I had an idea of the feedback I would get. I would pass out condoms and the men would ask me how they work, if I wanted to test it out with them, if they could have me rather than the condom. Instinctively, I would respond with a look of disgust and immediately walk away, worried for my safety, but my coworkers—who are locals—had different reactions. Though I do think they recognized that these comments were problematic, their responses involved laughter and playful banter. They would dismiss what the men said and continue to talk about how to use the condoms. It both confused and enraged me. One part of me thought that this shrugging-off sort of response may just normalize the sexual harassment but another part of me thought that the continued conversation was not devoid of educational value.
I still don’t really know how to feel about the situation. We were clearly being sexually harassed at every corner, but at the same time, the men who were making crude comments were also taking condoms. Condoms that they would (hopefully) be using, rather than continuing habits of unsafe sex. Further, some of the men actually don’t have the information they need to properly use the material we were giving out. When asking how to use the condoms, sometimes they were actually fishing for information rather than trying to initiate a series of sexual jokes. So maybe the intense discomfort is a price to pay for the greater good. Of course, it is by no means a price I should have to pay—but just because the comments make me uncomfortable doesn’t mean that they will cease to exist. So, I should take a lesson from my coworkers, dismissing the out of line comments for the sake of education. After all, we are talking about STIs and unwanted pregnancies, and South Africa remains the HIV capital of the world.