Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Thursday, April 26

Three books on the social and political dimensions of aids in Africa

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas van de Walle reviews three new books on the AIDS crisis in Africa—one by John Iliffe, one by Alex de Waal, and one by Amy S. Patterson. Van de Walle sings the praises of all three books, and notes their surprisingly—and unfortunately—uncommon focus on the sociological and political effects of AIDS on the continent that gave birth to the disease and is now dying from it.

Iliffe's book, he writes, takes the historical view and shows how AIDS' early start in Africa combined with its incurable, fatal, yet unusually slow-moving nature led to its virulence south of the Sahara. Iliffe puts an optimistic spin on his account, though, finding hope in the wellspring of activism on the subject and contending that 2005 represented the high water mark of the spread of the disease. De Waal sees things differently, asking why, despite the activism, hasn't AIDS made a much greater political impact? He agrees that the nature of AIDS has contributed to its devastation, but he also points out the anthropogenic factor—namely, that denial amongst the public has led to unaccountability within governments. Patterson, finally, also looks at the human element, but focuses more on the decisionmakers. The impact of AIDS, she thinks, has less to do with good and bad governance in the typical sense—democracy versus dictatorship—and more to do with individual personalities and values. Democratic and comparatively wealthier South Africa, after all, has been hit hard by AIDS, while poorer, more authoritarian Uganda has been a model for AIDS treatment and prevention.