Keeping the story of HIV alive in South Africa


The Drama for Life festival at the
University of the Witwatersrand uses
applied drama and theatre practices in
the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa
(Images: Drama for Life)

Melissa Meyer
HIV/Aids and the Media Project
+27 11 715 5828/42
+27 72 778 5800

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The Life Beats workshop brought together artists, journalists, HIV activists and health experts from around Johannesburg to discuss ways in which to keep the story of the HIV/Aids epidemic alive.

The gathering was held at the University of the Witwatersrand from 20 August to 21 August 2010.

A joint initiative of the Drama for Life/Sex Actually Festival and the HIV/Aids and the Media Project, the workshop sought to bridge the gap between health and arts reportage on HIV/Aids.

The workshop offered participants from the journalism and arts industry an opportunity to explore how HIV/Aids can be covered as a news story, and provided critical training on how to report about it in an accurate and responsible manner.

The workshop ran concurrently with the Drama for Life Festival (DFL), which was started in 2006 to inspire the use of applied drama and theatre practices in the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa.

Formal speakers

Adrienne Sichel, a specialist writer and Wits School of Dramatic arts resident fellow 2010, was one of the speakers at the workshop. She highlighted the active role theatre has played over the years in South Africa and why it is an important medium to reach and teach people.

“Theatre is immediate, which is why it will never die,” she said. “Good art picks up what society is doing. Using theatre, we have to humanise something that is very dehumanising.”

Well-known health reporter Mia Malan looked at key issues journalist should remember and take into account when reporting on HIV/Aids. “Journalists have to understand the science of HIV/Aids when reporting on the topic,” she said. Malan added that accuracy in this regard was important, as the wrong information could mislead the public.

She said HIV/Aids is like a mirror of society: “It shows us everything that is wrong with our society.” From a media point of view, she said it was one area that covered everything in journalism. “It covers science, human interest, policy, politics and lifestyle. Though HIV is not always news, it can be used to tell many stories about policy and many other issues affecting society.”

Melissa Meyer from the HIV/Aids and the Media Project agreed: “HIV/Aids is a lens through which we can examine political and economic stability as well as social cohesion.”

Arts writer and critic Zingi Mkefa looked at the link between HIV/Aids and art. He said art is not just about entertainment – it can also be used to understand issues like politics. “Through art we can see HIV/Aids as the invariable gift that can help us change the way we think, feel and talk,” he said. “The issue works harder than the work of art.”

Director of the Wits Radio Academy and Mail & Guardian ombudsman Prof Franz Krüger tackled the ethics of reporting on HIV/Aids. “Truth-telling is a core universal value,” he said, encouraging journalists to “get the science right, debunk nonsense – it is a public health hazard to report on wonder drugs or people who promise instant healing”.

He said journalists should always ensure they tell the complete story. “The ethical call of reporting on HIV/Aids is to tell the story fully and well despite our values, our industry and ourselves.”

Krüger said journalists had a duty to fight the stigma associated with HIV/Aids, and minimise harm when covering the epidemic.

Dr Sindi van Zyl from Anova Health Institute said journalists and the arts were the most important tools to in reaching affected individuals and determining what they understand about HIV/Aids. “Patients believe what they read in the papers or what they watch on television, or live theatre.”

She said journalists and artists should promote important messages about HIV/Aids in their work, encouraging people to get tested regularly and seek out the correct treatment and information from their nearest hospitals or clinics.

Deep Night

As part of the workshop, participants attended the final dress rehearsal for Deep Night – a physical theatre piece that will be shown during the DFL festival from 21 to 24 August. It has been brought to the festival by The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

Through dance, Deep Night forces audience to feel and experience the darkness of Johannesburg night life. Directed by PJ Sabbagha and performed by cast members Dada Masilo, Bifikile Sedibe, Songezo Mcillizeli and Ivan Teme, the show also looks at the reality and presence of HIV/Aids in South Africa

Sabbagha said: “The show explores the stuff that HIV reveals about us as society – desire and fear of being alone.” He added that Deep Night is about “the moments when we’re so intoxicated, we lose grip of the reality and the responsibility to protect ourselves from HIV – that’s when HIV is most dangerous.”

In portraying the characters they play, the performers drew from their own personal experiences and observed environment. From seduction to sexual desperation and companionship, the show is raw with emotion.