Aids shatters racist delusion

The self-described blonde, white prostitute says primly, 'I don't sleep with blacks'. Her voice sounds slightly bored as it sings down the telephone line from her apartment in the city centre.

'I will do Indians and Chinese, but most of my guys are whites. I won't do anyone black because I don't want to get Aids.'

The woman, who advertises herself as 'blonde stunner' in the classifieds of a local newspaper's 'adult entertainment' section, uses her racial preference as a sales pitch to entice reluctant punters who are worried about contracting the disease running rampant in South Africa.

'You will be safe with me,' she coos.

The young woman's business pitch reflects a widespread belief that HIV and Aids is a problem restricted to the country's majority black population.

For years the minority white population has felt insulated from the Aids epidemic, despite evidence that the disease is spreading among the nation's caucasians faster than any other white population in the world and, if anything, even faster than among black South Africans.

'Bored white men with money are now a high-risk group,' says Lynne Webber, a clinical virologist and HIV expert. 'They have the time and means to stray from their marriage bed, and they are bringing the disease home to their wives.'

White HIV carriers have been around ever since the first cases were diagnosed in southern Africa in the 1980s, but these tended to be minority, high-risk categories, such as haemophiliacs who contracted the disease via transfusions, drug addicts and homosexual men - the same as throughout the west during the early stages of the HIV pandemic.

It was among heterosexual blacks that Aids exploded into a frightening holocaust.

According to UNAids, 5.3 million South Africans are now infected, and at least 1 million have died so far.

For most whites, who generally live a comfortable first-world lifestyle, Aids was an inconvenience that attacked their employees, but rarely struck close to home. Now it is becoming clear that Aids is burning its way through the white population at an equally frightening rate.

The first inkling that whites were succumbing to the disease as fast as blacks were came from a recent study that broke down Aids statistics according to race, a joint collaboration between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the authoritative Human Sciences Research Council.

The figures showed at least 6 per cent of whites were HIV positive, compared with less than 1 per cent of whites in countries such as Australia or Britain. The figure for blacks is 10 per cent, and the feeling is that the numbers between blacks and whites could soon tally.

'These figures came as a surprise to everyone except medical professionals working with patients,' says Dr Webber. 'We see wealthy, middle-class white people every day who are infected.'

For organisations that represent whites, this development is worrying.

'We used to think that Aids was a black disease,' says Dirk Hermann, spokesman for Solidarity, a large mineworker union that represents mostly white workers, and is frequently accused of trying to hold onto apartheid-style work privileges for its members.

'Whites believe HIV/Aids is a black man's disease. Others even see a demographic solution in HIV.

'The fact is that whites are just as much part of the pandemic as other groups in South Africa.'

Solidarity has been fighting for Aids campaigners to tailor their efforts to suit a white, conservative audience. Campaigns are usually based around safe sex and often explicit material is used to get the message across.

'The exposure of sexual organs and the one-sided emphasis on condoms has put off a lot of people,' says Mr Hermann. 'Because of this they don't hear the message.'

The union is now trying to get Aids campaigners to recognise that different messages are needed to reach different risk groups. For most, however, the fiction of Aids as a black disease remains.

Last month the country's blood transfusion service was forced to make a grovelling public apology after it accidentally revealed that a pint of blood donated as part of a publicity drive by none other than President Thabo Mbeki had been destroyed because its system classified him as high risk, as it does with any donations from a black.

The notion that the blood of a black president, ruling a predominantly black country, is deemed an Aids risk because of his skin colour, has dominated headlines for the past week.

The blood transfusion service says it will review its classification system, which includes screening out donors who are homosexuals along with others in high-risk categories.

For some the belief that whites are somehow immune from the killer disease is so strong they will stake their lives on it.

'I only see rich white men, because you know they are clean,' says the 'blonde stunner'.

'Maybe some [white] guys can give you Aids, but I think the risk is small.'