Diary - Joan Bakewell

In Cape Town, some accuse the Mbeki government of genocide because of its position on Aids. Is the w

''Talk about it: love life!" So reads the touchingly upbeat poster at the side of the road through Khayelitsha, one of the eight or so townships far from the glittering heart of tourist Cape Town. I have come to talk about "it" - which, of course, means Aids. People are talking and not talking. Those who stay silent are those who are frightened they may be HIV-positive, and fear for their jobs, abuse from their neighbours and social ostracism. Those who talk are campaigners, grass-roots activists, outraged citizens. They talk of the scale of the problem: about 50,000 people in this township of between half a million and a million (estimates vary) are HIV-positive. Five thousand of them have Aids and need the antiretroviral drug treatment that only 1,000 currently get.

But I have come to South Africa to hear a more upbeat story. Daisy left school when she was nine: for years she had a job as a cleaner with a white family. But over the past decade her life has been transformed. Today she is the co-ordinator of Wola Nani (Xhosa for "we embrace and develop one another"), an NGO offering support and counselling in the township for about 270 clients. I meet a bright and eager woman of 50 who organises three counselling sessions a week, plans home visits for those too weak to attend and pioneers a remarkable scheme of self-help among those who need it. The NGO trains women who are themselves HIV-positive to go out into the community and care for other HIV sufferers. By declaring their status publicly - risking rejection and discrimination - they open up the community to its hidden problems. These women go out to wash and cook for those who are too sick to cope. They feed them, keep their homes tidy, make sure their children get to school. There are already millions of Aids orphans in Africa, so the cry is: "Keep the Mums alive." This is grass-roots self-help on a modest but heroic scale. They simply can't wait for the government to get its act together. Bringing help to others gives their lives purpose. "When I knew I was positive," Charlie tells me, "I thought I would die. Now I am on the drugs, and I am helping others. I'm really happy!"

I am in Cape Town with people from Christian Aid and a television crew. By night we take ourselves off to the city's impressive Baxter Theatre - the size of a Victorian railway station, but 1970s-style elegance - to hear the viciously funny satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys launch a vitriolic attack on the government, and President Thabo Mbeki in particular. Thabo, he points out, is an anagram of Botha, South Africa's premier during the apartheid era. His view is clear: South Africa had one struggle - against apartheid. Now it has a second struggle - against Aids. From the stage, amid his clever costumes and impressions of South Africa's leaders past and present, he rails at the government's indifference. He is at once mocking and insulting, pouring upon his audience a diatribe of criticism. Yes, it is genocide, he insists when he and I speak after the performance. One could put it down to theatrical exaggeration, were the word not repeated again when I speak to Wola Nani's no-nonsense programme director, Pat Francis: "Yes, what other explanation is there? This government is letting its people die." Is the world listening? Do we care enough? Or have we all come down with genocide fatigue?

In Pieter-Dirk Uys's audience is a party of about 120 American students. ("Go home and do something about your country," the comedian shouts at them.) They are on a five-day stay in Cape Town, living on an ex-cruise liner, part of a "Semester-at-Sea" scheme that has already taken them to seven countries. By night, its strings of lights glitter in the harbour. This is rich kids' education: gloriously free and easy, apparently without a care in the world. Back in the township, not far from the Oliver Tambo Sports Centre and Albertina Sisulu Road, a poster outside Masiyile High School encourages its pupils: "Love to be there!" As we wander between the dusty tracks, we spy a "malunga" - the Xhosa word for "whitey". It seems that one of the American students has struck out on his own and come to see things for himself. One education meeting another.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Police state