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Saturday, July 3, 2010
Updated: July 6, 12:02 PM ET
Finding solace in soccer

By Jemele Hill

JOHANNESBURG -- In Newtown, where railways and trading companies once thrived, an old problem was confronted with a new twist.

If you happened to be walking past Newtown Park, where you could get a clear view of the towering spectacle known as the Nelson Mandela Bridge, the soccer game being played on a dusty field probably didn't look like anything special.

Until you saw the players' jerseys.

In bold, black letters, they all read: HIV Positive.

Pickup soccer games in South Africa happen with the same frequency as hoops games in the inner city, but this wasn't just any pickup soccer game. It was a five-a-side, all-women tournament featuring six teams -- all with HIV-positive footballers.

The crowd, which was primarily composed of HIV patients, blew their vuvuzelas like the South African national team was playing. But when they jogged around the park and sang a shosholoza -- a traditional African folk song -- the improvised lyrics carried a far different message.

Put on the condom! Put on the condom!

If only their song wasn't being drowned out by the World Cup.

We've seen sports destroy countless barriers, but it has a way of erecting them, too, keeping us from reality at the wrong moments.

As South Africa continues to draw worldwide praise for how it has hosted the World Cup, South African AIDS activists worry that their own government, along with others around the world, is becoming complacent when it comes to battling the HIV epidemic that has terrorized the African continent.

The "Halftime: No Time To Quit" tournament Friday, put on by the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres -- also known as Doctors Without Borders -- was a way to remind the world that as glorious matches are being played, people in Africa continue to die from AIDS at an alarming rate. In fact, experts predict that during the 31 days of the World Cup, 22,000 people will die of AIDS in South Africa.

"We acknowledge that the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime mission for the continent," said Nokhwezi Hoboyi, a 30-year-old AIDS activist who has been living with HIV for 12 years, "but HIV is here for the next five to 10 years. Millions and billions of dollars have been spent in preparation for the World Cup. If we could have the donors and governments who could provide such enormous amount of money to the HIV program, I'm sure many lives would be saved."

South Africa spent billions to host the World Cup, building lavish stadiums in a number of cities, many in impoverished communities. As people question what kind of legacy the World Cup will leave in this country, there is no question that how South Africa handles its HIV crisis is a significant part of the equation.

South African AIDS activists are pleased with the way the current South African administration has responded in terms of implementing AIDS prevention programs, building treatment centers and helping combat the numerous stigmas about HIV that exist in South Africa.

But activists also note that funding has slowed, both in South Africa and outside it. They say funds that were earmarked to help confront the issue were diverted to help the country undergo a facelift for the World Cup. The larger economic crisis many countries are facing has made international donations harder to come by. President Barack Obama pledged $50 billion to AIDS relief over five years as a presidential candidate but reportedly has funneled only $7 billion toward the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a program created by former President George W. Bush in 2003.

At Friday's tournament, organizers placed cardboard cutouts of Obama and other world leaders in a "quitters box," putting scarves around their eyes to indicate how they are blinding themselves to the HIV epidemic.

In South Africa, looking away from the HIV problem is impossible. Only three countries have a higher HIV infection rate than South Africa; officials estimate that 18 percent of the adult population in South Africa is infected with HIV. According to local activists, many of those infected don't receive the proper treatment. Four million people worldwide have received antiretroviral treatment and led improved lives, but there are still 9 million more who don't have access to the medicine.

Despite the mammoth strides that have been made in recent years, the lack of quality HIV education is still a major problem. Activists worry that the World Cup will lead to a spike in new HIV infection cases considering the amount of alcohol consumed at the matches and the booming interest in the sex trade caused by increased tourism. According to FIFA, millions of condoms have been distributed during the World Cup, and the organization has strongly supported the South African government's national testing campaign.

"There is much more to be done," said Dr. Gilles van Cutsem, who treats HIV and AIDS patients in Cape Town and came to Newtown Park to watch some of his patients play in the soccer tournament. "It's a global program. Treatment. Prevention. Treatment as prevention. The global package must be put in place."

As Hoboyi knows personally, awareness of HIV and AIDS can be the difference between life and death. Hoboyi, who works closely with the AIDS activist group Treatment Action Campaign, lost two children to the disease before realizing she was infected. She contracted HIV from a boyfriend, but doctors told her after the death of her first child that she had a rare disease, not HIV. It wasn't until she was living in a hospice and suffering from dementia while in her twenties that a doctor finally explained what HIV was and that she would have to be treated with antiretroviral drugs for the rest of her life in order to survive.

"I told myself I'm going to find out as much as I can about the virus that I have in order for me to be able to live with it, to deal with it, and to educate myself and my community about it and change the myths or the statements that were being made about people who are living with HIV," said Hoboyi, who has a HIV-negative son who will turn 3 in October.

As much as South African activists would have liked for some of the funding to be sent in their direction instead of invested in million-dollar stadiums that could go unused after the World Cup is done, there is no question that soccer has made a huge difference in the lives of the HIV patients who came to play in Newtown.

There are numerous HIV-positive soccer teams throughout the African continent. Some teams are more skilled than others, but the HIV-positive soccer community is vibrant and helps those who still are subject to widespread discrimination and ignorance.

For Nandipha Makhele, who was the goalkeeper for the South African team Siyaphila (meaning "We are alive, we are well" in the Xhosa language), playing soccer with other HIV patients is an escape from a turbulent home life.

Makhele tested positive for HIV two years ago after being raped by two men in Cape Town. She lives with her father and two brothers there, and even though antiretroviral therapy has allowed her to be a normal, healthy 25-year-old, she receives little family support. She said her brother will sometimes throw away drinking glasses after she's used them, and her relationship with her father is awkward. When she's done volunteering for Treatment Action Campaign, she goes home and stays in her room.

Makhele said it's a painful existence sometimes, so much so that she developed sores on her hands and arms from stress. For an afternoon, soccer alleviates the stress.

"HIV is nothing," Makhele said. "It's a virus. You can't say, 'Oh, I have HIV. I can't play.' You've got to play."

She let out a laugh, as if it were an irony that, if not for HIV, she probably would have never thought about learning how to play soccer.

"Today," she exclaimed, "I kick a virus!"

Jemele Hill can be reached at