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Blog: Politics, prevention and party dresses

Johannesburg, 31 July 2008 (IRIN) - The 1980s pop icon Pat Benatar once said, “Love is a battleground.” If you’re a woman, so is your wardrobe.

In 2006, a prominent South African AIDS activist accused the country’s former deputy president and chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council, Jacob Zuma, of rape. He was eventually acquitted, but not before testifying that although the complainant’s HIV status had caused him to hesitate, he was compelled to have consensual unprotected sex with her, based on her conduct and her clothes – she  had come to his bedroom dressed in only a kanga, a traditional cotton wrap common in sub-Saharan Africa.

The kanga became symbolic of the fight against high rape rates, low conviction rates and the general trappings of patriarchy that many people felt underlay the trial. Outside the court, kanga-clad activists clashed physically with Zuma supporters wearing “100% JZ” T-shirts. Although Zuma attempted to control the 100% JZ-ers, they later made headlines by setting bras alight in a gesture that would have been some gender commentary had anyone been able to figure out what exactly it was.

Ironically, kangas have recently become yet another HIV/AIDS prevention tool, with their usual proverbs or political messages replaced by prevention slogans. Young South African artists have created a series of red, white and black kangas that carry not only prevention messages but also messages of hope about the AIDS epidemic in their country. Although no one has reprinted the patterns widely, the concept opens up an interesting and innovative medium for AIDS messaging. And why not?

After all, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has several ZANU-PF kanga designs, complete with standard, grainy self-portraits, while Jacob Zuma’s range is said to be doing quite well this season.

Yesterday it was Egypt’s anti-colonial headscarves, today it is South Africa’s kangas and unmentionables; tomorrow, who knows? 
 
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