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In South Africa, free condoms are big (but not big enough for some, it seems)

Editor’s note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Julie Peroni liked everything ab

Editor’s note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Julie Peroni liked everything about her new boyfriend and she couldn’t wait for the first time he spent the night.

“Things were going really well,” said Peroni, 26, before pausing dramatically. “But then he pulled out a government condom. Like I would ever date somebody who uses government condoms!”

“Government condoms” refer to the millions of free condoms funded by the state and distributed throughout South Africa each year as a way to fight the massive epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV.

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But even as the phrase has entered the South African lexicon, results have been decidedly mixed. Moreover, the practice has become another class marker in a country with a vast gap between rich and poor, dividing those who can afford the latest ribbed, lubricated and flavored varieties from those who rely on free protection, the carnal answer to government food stamps.

Most young, cosmopolitan Capetownians will instantly recognize the freebies: unsubtle, dark blue condom wrappers with a bright yellow circle and the brand name “Choice.” They’re quick to offer opinions, from the pragmatically positive — “It’s great. Why would anybody ever pay for condoms?” — to the positively pragmatic: “I don’t trust anything the government does, especially not condoms.”

While many frown upon the sex appeal and quality of government condoms, you can’t fault authorities for not trying. Urban South Africans are so saturated with safe sex messages that experts are beginning to wonder whether people are starting to block them out.

One can’t avoid safe sex education in Cape Town, even during a casual visit. A large billboard by one of Cape Town’s major highways reads: “Famous last words: We were drunk. Use a condom.” Random flyers instructing people how to properly use life preservers on boats have a disclaimer at the bottom — slightly confusing given the purpose of these flyers — that reminds people to use condoms.

Even pornography isn’t spared safe sex lessons. The producers of South Africa’s first all-black pornographic film, Mapona, released earlier this year, argue that since all their actors wear condoms, the flick promotes safe sex and raises awareness about the dangers of HIV. They say a sequel will include educational extras about sex, such as how to correctly use a condom.

These safe sex initiatives are widely applauded. Considering South Africa’s recent history, they’re also somewhat unlikely.

Just a decade ago under the governance of President Thabo Mbeki — one of the world’s most prominent AIDS-deniers — South Africa’s stand on safe sex was lax, to say the least. The current president, Jacob Zuma, has encouraged safe-sex education and a massive distribution of condoms throughout the country.

Cape Town alone aimed to distribute 1 million condoms each month, or 104 condoms per year for every man older than 15. This target was set by the Cape Town City Health Department, which calculated that residents should have enough condoms for “twice a week protected intercourse,” and was aimed at providing free protection especially in poor residential areas, the so-called townships.

Cape Town’s biggest township, Khayelitsha, represented 11 percent of the population of Cape Town in 2004 but produced more than one-third of the city’s sexually transmitted infections. Although the target of 104 condoms hasn’t been reached here yet (the distribution in 2007/2008 averaged 55 condoms per year per man) the incidence of sexually transmitted infections during the monitored condom drive in Khayelitsha dropped by 50 percent.

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But according to a report by Virginia Azavedo from the Cape Town City Health Department, the ongoing challenge is to make sure free condoms are actually available. “For example, if a big box was left in a shebeen [unlicensed bar in a township], it was likely to be used as a stool, unopened with the condoms forgotten,” Azavedo said.

Many non-governmental organizations, which get their supplies from the health department and distribute them further, agree that distributing condoms is one thing, but getting people to use them is a another issue.

Dianne Massawe, advocacy manager at Sweat, an organization working to improve the rights of sex workers, said that bombarding the public endlessly with safe sex rhetoric and “throwing condoms at people” just isn’t enough.

“We’ve got all this safe sex messaging, but the infection rate is still increasing daily,” she said. “For some people, the fear hasn’t sunk in yet. They still think they would rather die of AIDS in 10 years than to die of hunger today.”

One of Sweat’s current campaigns focuses on educating sex workers by hosting outreach programs with fun and tantalizing agendas, such as “How to put a condom on your client using your mouth.”

According to Massawe, the years of stressing the importance of using condoms has worked, at least among sex workers. A recent study called “Female Sex Work and the 2010 Soccer World Cup,” by Sweat and the UNFPA, found that 99 percent of sex workers used condoms during this summer’s soccer championship.

Still, even sex workers complain about government condoms. “They say they are powdery and smell bad. We had a faulty batch last year and had to do a recall,” Massawe said. “And guys don’t like using them. They complain they are too small for them.”

Some NGO workers will roll their eyes at the infamous “size excuse” but others take no chances.

Health4Men, a nonprofit organization providing free sexual healthcare to gay and bisexual men, produces and distributes its own condoms, branded “Play Nice.” They look chic, are about 2 to 4 millimeters larger in diameter than the government condoms and — perhaps more importantly — are clearly marked “large” on the wrapper.

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“You’ve got to make it sexy,“ said Glenn de Swardt, psychosocial manager of Health4Men in Cape Town. “Our condoms are very popular. They are more comfortable than government condoms.” When men complain of erectile dysfunction, he said, it’s because the condom ring is too tight.

Every year, Health4Men distribute about half a million of its own “Play Nice” condoms in Cape Town. Men can walk into the Health4Men clinic in Cape Town’s Greenpoint neighborhood and grab as many condoms and lubricant packets as they want. According to de Swardt, visitors don’t have to be gay or bisexual to get free “Play Nice” condoms. 

“We are paying for these to go on penises,” he said.

Whatever works.

Top 10 reasons why African men don’t use condoms (as told to various NGO workers throughout Africa)

1. They aren’t available when one needs them.

2. Condoms cause HIV. Before there were condoms in Africa, there was no HIV. It was the Americans who brought AIDS to Africa with condoms.

3. Good Muslims are not supposed to use condoms.

4. If I am paying for sex, I shouldn’t have to use a condom.

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5. Only promiscuous people use condoms.

6. Why would I put my seed in plastic?

7. It’s hard to remember to use a condom when one is drunk.

8. One loses an erection when putting on a condom.

9. It’s not natural.

10. They are too small for African men.