Transforming societies to create a better future

Posted on February 23, 2016

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) at the University of Pretoria (UP) is an innovative platform where students and academics can engage in conversations about transformation, sexualities and diversity, in order to better understand and address the HIV and AIDS epidemics in South Africa. With a directorship that is highly experienced in the field, the Centre has a vision of understanding power, exploring diversity, examining difference and imagining inclusivity.

The Centre asks pertinent questions about how South Africa became one of the countries with the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world. Is it because, as a nation, South Africa is sexually and racially fraught? What is the role of ‘culture’ in the epidemic? How has our past contributed to where we are today? What are the social drivers and social consequences of the epidemic?

In its 16 years of existence, the Centre has collaborated globally with researchers, academics and practitioners in HIV and related fields, engaging in research, advocacy and programmatic work.   

In its work at UP, the CSA&G encourages students, under the rubric of ‘Imagined Futures’, to imagine a transformed society that is not defined by status quo thinking. The Centre is a safe place for students to be themselves, promoting full equality and non-discrimination. Through its programme, Future Leaders @ Work, it equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to form a collective for social and behavioural change.

In a country that has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, being able to comfortably talk about the epidemic and related issues of sexuality, gender, class, race and power, is an imperative for the future of South Africa. Staff at the CSA&G, encourage students to imagine the future that they wish to live in. A central aim is to get students to really understand social and political challenges and opportunities (both as they are now, and in the future), and to challenge views that promote inequality and oppression.

As part of its work, the Centre offers students a range of courses dealing with topics that include: basic HIV training, education and awareness, counselling, mentorship, active citizenship, and building democracy and accountability. Courses are open to all students and form part of their extra curriculum.

A student-led feminist society, PUPS, or Pretoria University Purple Stockings, recruits students and raises awareness about gender issues, gender-based violence, equality and sexual orientation. The CSA&G also works closely with UP’s Centre for Human Rights on a number of short courses that focus on sexual minority rights and gender equality.

The Centre attracts a range of students from diverse backgrounds. Staff at the CSA&G believe that the way to entice students is to present intellectual debates on topics that society has made almost taboo. Rather than framing views as right or wrong, students are encouraged to try to understand and challenge South African belief systems and how discrimination, prejudice, racism and stigma are perpetuated and justified.

One key focus of the CSA&G is to promote thinking about integrity at all levels, including personal, sexual, political and intellectual. The Centre proves that even with a society as diverse as South Africa, people can come together with the common goal of creating an imagined future. By challenging the status quo and asking a different set of questions, students are directed towards a way of thinking in which they can imagine a future they wish to be a part of.

2016 holds promise for further developments, including the Centre launching its ‘Critical Questions’ programme. This programme will focus on the questions that need to be asked in order to bring about positive change in South Africa, for example: For an imagined future to be realised, how should society be thinking and what questions should it be asking?

While the aspirations of the CSA&G may sound idealistic, it has created a space for students not only to feel safe, but also to think differently. Students who have engaged with the Centre understand that beliefs, attitudes and values are not innate; they are socially constructed. They soon realise that if these views are questioned and challenged intellectually, it is possible to create a more inclusive and just society.


- Author Louise de Bruin

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