We sat at a cafe, a famous one on the infamous Vilakazi street. Black South Africans and White tourists occupied the red, plastic chairs and tables. The afternoon sun shone gently on our foreheads as we sipped on hot black coffee in paper cups. A lit cigarette laid diagonally on the edge of the ash tray.
He was talking about dating life among young adults in Jo’berg. “I could never have more than one” he said, referring to women. “I can’t even handle one — they stress me out.”
“What’s stressful about it?”
He spoke about meeting women: there were girls who just wanted to have fun and would consent to hook up the first night but those weren’t people you want to date. The people you want to date, you show them you’re serious by waiting — sometimes, waiting a few months, he explained. He continued, “and it’s not enough that you spend time, wait to have sex, and want to practice safe sex. Here, there is a high HIV risk and so the government issues condoms for free. At a nightclub, you will be able to get government issued condoms free. But girls, they don’t want to hook up using a government issued condom — it has a smell and they seem the packaging so they know it’s a government issued condom. They will ask us to spend money to buy the nice condoms, cherry flavored or something. They will judge you for not spending money to go buy expensive condoms. It’s embarrassing.”
Driving in rural and urban areas, you will likely be greeted by tens of billboards, 10 feet apart, lining both sides of the street taunting the message that HIV is everyone’s problem. It is positive that public health is messaging visibly. In South Africa, an estimated 3.6 million people are being treated for HIV which is the 5th cause of death in the country (Center for Disease Control, 2018). As such, it is hard to understand why the type of condom is important.
“The former President told people, in an effort to promote healthy eating, that eating beets was good for you, that to prevent HIV, you just have to eat beets. So people ate beets instead of wearing a condom.”
This is hard to prove, but if it were treated as true, this misinformation has had lethal consequences. I thought about what it must feel like to be a young man, black or colored, fighting against historical oppression, finding legitimate work even if it’s less than ideal, wanting to do what is right, and possessing a strong desire to connect with someone romantically but is met with an unstated but assumed demand that he needs to spend money to prove that he is invested. This dynamic seems counterproductive to what women often want but feel that it is is challenging to acquire – a man’s respect. And so games are played. Cat chases mouse.
“It’s hard to know what women want,” he says as he takes a sip of coffee and glances over and the young men and women around us.
*This post is about heterosexual relationships and dating culture in South Africa. I acknowledge that there are other sexual orientations and other types of sexual and romantic relationships that were not discussed in this post.