SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — It's a steamy Thursday night here in South Africa's black cultural hub, and a pair of bubbly 40-somethings named Florence and Portia are camped out at Jozi FM, a community radio station.
They're here because they're tired of being two-timed by a man named Thabo.
He professes his love to Portia one day, Florence the next. So tonight, with help from a popular radio show called "Cheaters," they aim to lure him in - and expose him on air. They even hope he'll be jeered afterward by throngs who gather in the station's parking lot.
In the era of AIDS - with a new UN report saying 89 million Africans could contract the disease by 2025, and with about 1 in 9 South Africans already infected - "Cheaters" has become a South African radio sensation. The show is so popular, say listeners and hosts, in part because it's one of the first public forums addressing a common behavior that's spreading AIDS fast: infidelity. Despite the Jerry Springer vibe, including occasional brawls, "What we stand for is being faithful," says host Matthew Montshojang.
The basic concept is this: Suspect your husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend is cheating? Go to Jozi FM with details, and they'll put an investigative team on their tail - following them 24 hours a day, nabbing discarded hotel or ATM receipts, sometimes videotaping romantic dalliances.
Typically, alleged cheaters come on air to defend themselves from their partners' charges. Then cohost Prince Tshabalala lays out the evidence collected by his investigators.
Results can be chaotic. On a recent show, the hosts barged into a house and caught a man and his mistress canoodling. The wife had come with the radio team, and the mistress lunged at the wife with a broken bottle. Mr. Montshojang, the host, got slashed as he separated the women. This episode proved true to the show's disclaimer: "Cheaters is not for sensitive listeners."
It's all based on a US reality TV show that hasn't attained nearly as much fame as its South African imitator. One reason may be that, in South Africa, exposing cheaters is an explosive idea.
Cheating is winked at here, says Montshojang. One saying goes: "If you don't have a mistress, you won't have a warm house."
Behind such enigmatic proverbs are several factors that give rise to what sociologists call "concurrent relationships" among many southern African adults. One factor is a long-established migrant-labor system, which makes miners live far from their families - and more apt to take mistresses. Another is huge income disparities, often between BMW-driving men and poor young women living in tin shacks, who engage in "transactional sex." Older men give teenage girls "gifts," which the teens use to buy clothes or cellphone airtime.
For Florence and Portia, though, there's no excuse for Thabo's two-timing. Florence met him two months ago via a personal-ad service that runs on some South African cellphones. She says he has begun saying he wants to marry her. Standing in Jozi FM's reception room, she shows off a text message to her cellphone: "Baby, I need u in my arms 4ever."
But the women suspected Thabo was cheating. So Portia, Florence's longtime friend, called him and asked him out. He said yes "without even hesitating," says Portia, rolling her eyes.
So tonight they're trying to set him up. Portia has invited him to dinner. But he's late. She calls and implores him. "I love you baby," she coos. But it's not enough to lure him in. He says he's not feeling well - and backs out.
The women think he suspects a trick. In fact, for the first time in its year-long history, no "cheaters" get outed on tonight's two-hour show. The investigators couldn't find any. "I guess the cheaters know better than to be doing their thing on Thursday nights," laments Montshojang. Maybe the show really is changing behavior, he says, "at least on Thursdays."
Such behavior change - what AIDS experts call "partner reduction" - has been linked to decreasing infection rates. In Uganda, which saw a dramatic fall in HIV prevalence in the 1990s, the frequency of casual sex dropped 60 percent from 1989 to 1995, according to an article in the journal Science last year. This followed a government ad campaign preaching "Love Faithfully" and "Zero Grazing" - no infidelity.
In South Africa, however, "most AIDS prevention work is focused strongly on condom promotion" - not "partner reduction," says Warren Parker, director of the Center for AIDS Development, Research and Education in Johannesburg. But that's starting to change, if slightly.
"There's been a bit of a realization that 'partner reduction' is an important aspect" of the AIDS fight, he says. "Cheaters" is one of the few places where the issue is tackled directly. Yet he worries about its harsh condemnations: "If AIDS prevention becomes linked to a moral blame scenario, it complicates things."
New efforts are apparently needed. A March 4 UN report argues if African and other governments don't ramp up anti-AIDS action, 89 million new HIV infections could occur by 2025. A proactive response, however, could prevent 43 million of these infections. It would include a doubling of outside aid to Africa and dramatically boosting availability of AIDS drugs.
The UN report focuses mostly on governments, but "Cheaters" cohost Montshojang says his show is at the real forefront of where change needs to happen: "We're exposing all the bad things men and women are doing that hurt the whole community."
But with this week's no-shows, the outing will have to wait. By 10:30 p.m., Portia and Florence agree to give up their quest for now. Walking out into the Soweto night, Florence mumbles hopefully, "Next week we will get him."