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In the face of the extreme challenges posed by the South African HIV/AIDS epidemic, collaboration between public and private partners is often called for in an attempt to mobilise additional resources and generate synergies. This paper shows that the ability to successfully use public-private partnerships to address complex challenges, such as an HIV/AIDS epidemic, is influenced by the fabric of society, one important aspect being historical legacies. The first part of the article shows how South Africa's apartheid past affects the ability of public and private partners to collaborate in a response to HIV and AIDS today. It also takes into account how reconciliation and nation-building policies in the immediate post-transformation period have affected the ability to form and sustain partnerships concerning HIV/AIDS issues. The second part of the article analyses more recent developments regarding the information that these hold as to the feasibility of public-private partnerships and whether these continue to be affected by the legacies of the past. Two events with symbolic political value in South Africa, namely the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer event and the recent changes in government, are systematically examined on the basis of three analytical queries, regarding: the impact of the event on nation-building and transcending cleavages in society; the event's impact on the ability to form public-private partnerships in general; and the role of HIV/AIDS in connection with the event. Conclusions are drawn a propos the influence of historic factors on the ability of South African society to effectively use public-private partnerships in the response to HIV and AIDS, and the continued dynamics and likely future directions of these partnerships.