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World AIDS Day 2023 and South Africa

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Visitors driving through the province of KwaZulu Natal on a Saturday in 2002 would have noticed multiple tents set up throughout the countryside. Those tents signified funerals, and it was safe to assume many of them were being held for people who had died of complications from AIDS, which was ravaging South Africa at the time and KwaZulu Natal in particular. In addition to the funerals, visitors to the area would not have been able to ignore the many skinny, mortally ill people they saw in every city and rural neighborhood—mothers, fathers, and children dying because almost no medication was available in the country to combat the virus.

The situation in South Africa has improved since those darkest days, but AIDS and HIV still stalk this region, a reality recognized in particular on December 1, World AIDS Day. UNAIDS chooses this day each year to remind the world that AIDS is still a deadly, dangerous virus, which claimed the lives of 630,000 people in the last year. Although that is a sharp decrease from the high of 2 million deaths in 2004, UNAIDS reports that 39 million people around the globe are living with HIV, the virus that has led to more than 40 million deaths since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of the world’s current AIDS cases, according to UNAIDS, and South Africa remains the country with the highest prevalence. Of its 57 million people, it is estimated that around 7.7 million are infected—up to one in seven people—and that 600,000 children have been orphaned as a result of AIDS.

UNAIDS, which plans and promotes World AIDS Day annually, is focusing this year on community organizations in its 2023 theme of “Let Communities Lead.” By recognizing the important community role in responding to the AIDS crisis, UNAIDS is issuing a “A call to action to enable and support communities in their leadership roles.” In South Africa, many Christian organizations have been filling these roles for decades as they labor to address the vast needs this disease brings to their communities.

Two of those organizations are iThemba Projects, established in 2003 in KwaZuluNatal, and Rays of Hope, which has been partnering with the Alexandra Township in Johannesburg for over 30 years. Both organizations strive to bring sustainable change by helping community members address the wide spectrum of problems they face, including AIDS and its aftermath.

AIDS and the inequality of apartheid cast long shadows over the area commonly known as Sweetwaters in KwaZulu Natal. The community of almost 60,000 people near the large town of Pietermaritzburg is challenged with rampant unemployment, subpar schools, and many households headed by single parents or adolescents raising younger sisters and brothers. Many in the area rely on government subsidies to survive, but iThemba Projects is partnering with the denizens of this district to bring hope and sustainable change.

Named after the Zulu word for hope, iThemba started developing programs for Sweetwaters in 2003, organized by a group that attended the nearby Hilton Baptist Church. Designed to facilitate community development so that the people of Sweetwaters can help themselves, the nonprofit organization aims to create sustainable change so community members “can participate in their own upliftment,” according to the mission statement on its website. The organization focuses on mentoring, early child development programs, nutrition, and construction projects, and it encourages community members to lead the programs.

The legacy of AIDS in Sweetwaters contributes to the continuing cycle of poverty, low education levels, and a lack of positive role models who could assist children and teenagers in making good life choices. Many of iThemba’s programs are geared towards a younger demographic because that age group makes up a large part of the South African population. Roughly half of South Africans living with HIV are ages 15 to 24, and KwaZulu Natal has the highest prevalence of AIDS in the country, with roughly 39 percent of the province’s population living with HIV or AIDS. Through iThemba’s mentorship program, mentors walk alongside the youth, helping them to understand what it means to love and follow Jesus in their everyday lives. In addition to providing mentoring in Early Childhood Education as well as permaculture food gardening (to fight stunting), the hope is that the local youth will follow Jesus wholeheartedly and become a light for their own community and the whole of South Africa.

Because antiretroviral medication to fight HIV/AIDS is widely accessible through government programs, AIDS does not have to be the death sentence it was when iThemba was first established. However, challenges still exist. The HIV infection rate has continued to rise in many places in the country, and South Africa’s HIV drug program—the largest in the world—is being affected by both a weakening currency and healthcare system. Through it all, iThemba continues to advocate for the community of Sweetwaters while also working to fill in gaps left by the official response. Most importantly, through the support of churches, individuals, and families from around the world that help fund and pray for iThemba, the Kingdom of God is being brought to Sweetwaters.

Rays of Hope pursues a similar community-based mission in Alexandra Township, which is located in the Gauteng province. Alex, as this township is affectionately called, contains a rich cultural heritage while also grappling with issues of overpopulation and extreme poverty. Considered one of the poorest urban areas in the country, up to 750,000 people are estimated to live within its 2.67 square miles in an area whose infrastructure was only designed to support 70,000. Many of its inhabitants struggle with issues of unemployment, overcrowding, crime, and the breakdown of family structures. The population explosion was exacerbated by migration from different parts of South Africa during the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The AIDS pandemic almost wiped out a whole generation of adults, leaving orphans to fend for themselves or grandparents struggling to raise young children.

In this setting, Rays of Hope strives to support and serve the community through initiatives that foster independence rather than dependency. In its many years of serving Alexandra, Rays of Hope leaders have learned that education, food support, psychosocial support, and other interventions do not succeed in isolation. To create sustainable change, a holistic approach is essential, so Rays of Hope focuses on what is called “the whole child” model.

Rays of Hope leaders believe an environment ravaged by HIV/AIDS, unprotected sex, violence, drugs, and poor healthcare services will harm a child’s development and, ultimately, their education and growth. Thus, older children and teenagers are taught about healthy sexual behaviors to combat teenage pregnancy and the spread of diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Beginning in 2024, children will receive lessons about gender-based violence with the expectation that “catching them young” can help rewrite the narrative about sex roles that too often lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS. 

Rays of Hope is also participating in a nationwide initiative, “What About the Boys,” that aims to mentor young boys to value women and equality and emphasizes education that steers teenagers from drugs and crime. Social workers with Rays of Hope also engage with families during in-home visits, encouraging behavior changes that reduce irresponsible sexual behavior, drug use, and crime because the organization believes children need a safe environment, unconditional love, and acceptance in order to thrive. 

Rays of Hope also offers healthcare access and support networks that aim to reduce the impact of AIDS and improve the quality of life for those living with the condition.

Much like iThemba, Rays of Hope bases its efforts on the good news of Jesus. Rays of Hope leader Bertha Muchadeyi says, “Being a ministry arm of Rosebank Union Church, Rays of Hope is rooted and grounded in the word of God. All our programs are opportunities to evangelize because we believe real, sustainable change can only happen when one has a relationship with the Lord.” 

Rays of Hope and iThemba are just two of the many organizations doing invaluable work in communities hard hit by the AIDS crisis, and these organizations are being feted this year on World AIDS Day. UNAIDS hopes that this year’s focus on community efforts will result in “a call to action to enable and support communities in their leadership roles” to produce a final end to the AIDS virus. But UNAIDS says the good work of organizations like Rays of Hope and iThemba is being obstructed by “funding shortages, policy and regulatory hurdles, capacity constraints, and crackdowns on civil society and on the human rights of marginalized communities.” The best way to ensure these valuable organizations can continue their work, according to the United Nations program, is by ensuring they receive local, national, and international support.

As the world pauses to reflect on this disease that has affected so many, consider ways you can come alongside those who are effectively addressing AIDS and the ones who suffer from its wide-ranging reach. To support the work being done by iThemba Projects and Rays of Hope, visit their websites: https://raysofhope.co.za and https://ithembaprojects.com/how-to-help.html. And pray for the work of iThemba and Rays of Hope, as well as other Christian organizations the world over that work tirelessly to address AIDS.

Photo Courtesy: ©Pexels/ Klaus Nielsen


Christina Ray Stanton is an author that has written about her experiences on 9/11 in Out of the Shadow of 9/11. For more information, refer to www.christinaraystanton.com.”

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