If Anglo American had been searching for a name for its groundbreaking Aids project in South Africa, it could hardly have done better than ­Goedehoop.

Goedehoop, which means Good Hope in Afrikaans, is the name of the mining group’s flagship colliery east of Johannesburg, where it has persuaded 90 per cent of its employees to take an HIV test.

In a country that is battling both one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world and as well as a cultural reluctance to face medical facts about the disease, this is an important achievement. It is also the first step towards bringing the mine’s HIV problem under control.

For companies operating in South Africa, the nation’s HIV/Aids epidemic poses a serious threat to their operations. They face spiralling costs due to absenteeism, early pension pay-outs and the need to recruit staff to replace those too ill to work. A growing number of companies are setting up dedicated Aids programmes to tackle the problem, but many have found it difficult to implement schemes dueowing to the stigma of the disease.

In certain communities in South Africa, talking about sex is taboo. Few people are willing to discuss their sexual habits, let alone change them. To make matters worse, Health workers say there is a belief in many communities that Aids is a myth.

The economic cost is hard to assess. Dr Azar Jammine, chief economist at Econometrix, an economic consultancy, says: “There is a general acceptance that Aids reduces economic growth by between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent per annum.”

UNAids, the United Nations programme on HIV/Aids, estimates that South Africa’s workforce could shrink by 30 per cent by 2020 if nothing is done to halt the spread of the illness is not halted. This would clearly have a dramatic impact on national output. Local aid workers say the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the expense of tackling the problem, just on the human tragedy alone.

South Africa’s largest corporations have been at the forefront when it comes to facing up to the reality of the nation’s Aids crisis.

Anglo American’s experience at Goedehoop proves that with hard work and determination, it is possible to make a difference in a country that was in denial about itsAids problemfor years. It was only in November 2003 that President Thabo Mbeki’s government launched a national treatment programme, when more than 5million people were already known to be infected.

John Standish-White, regional area manager for Goedehoop, led a campaign to unite the mine workers with their local community, their families and even the local sex trade in his bid to halt the spread of HIV and nurse sick workers back to health. The first step was to persuade more than 1,000 of the mine’s 1,177 workers to come forward for voluntary counselling and testing.

Brian Brink, who runs Anglo American’s Aids programme, says the key was to respect employees’ privacy. “Everyone signed a confidentiality pledge and there was absolute commitment to non-discrimination against people who were HIV-
positive,” he says.

Anglo American was one of the first companies to introduce treatment programmes for its staff in sub-Saharan Africa. In total, it has 2,000 employees receiving free antriretrovirals, the drugs that help keep the disease under control.

In Januarythis year, Mr Standish-White and his team started voluntary testing at Goedehoop all over again. The results suggest that the mine’s HIV problem is being contained.

Mr Brink says: “We asked everyone to come back and check their HIV status again. Of those tested so far, prevalence rates are exactly the same as last year. There has been no new HIV infection, nobody is getting sick and nobody is dying. So in [Goedehoop] they have dealt with it.”

Other companies to follow Anglo American’s lead include DaimlerChrysler and SABMiller, the London-listed drinks group. Barclays, which is moving back to South Africa after a 20-year absence with its takeover of local bank Absa, also has a dedicated programme to help its staff.

Dominic Bruynseels, chief executive of Barclays Africa, says having an Aids policy is a commercial necessity as well as an act of philanthropy. “To deal with issues relating to leave of absence and productivity, we have to have an approach,” he says.

Since it is difficult for health workers to persuade communities that Aids is a reality, it is not surprising that it is far harder in the workplace. People fear they will lose their jobs or be discriminated against if they admit to being HIV-positive.

While it is illegal to discriminate against people who have the illness, there are claims that some employers do not always follow the rules. (See below).

In an attempt to quell fears over discrimination, some companies enlist volunteers among their staff to act as “peer educators”. They receive detailed training about HIV and Aids and then hold meetings with their colleagues to discuss the subject. The idea is that safe sex messages will be more acceptable coming from colleagues, rather than
management.

Lafarge, the world’s largest building materials group, with which has a big presence in South Africa, has put peer education at the heart of its Aids programme. “The key thing to stop the propagation of the illness is knowledge,” says Frederic de Rougemont, chief executive of Lafarge South Africa.

The company’s peer educators aim to make colleaguesemployees aware of the risks related to the epidemic and to encourage them to adopt a responsible attitude to sexual behaviour.

Like many companies in the region, Lafarge’s reasons for taking action against Aids are commercially, as well as socially, driven. The company has calculated that the costs of providing treatment are less than the burden on productivity due to illness and absenteeism if they do nothing.

“The cost of doing nothing over the next five years would be Euros€2m ($2.4m), but it costs us €1.5m with our campaign,” says Mr De Rougemont. “Aids is a serious threat and that is why we are acting. We are a philanthropic business, but [tackling the Aids problem] is fundamental to the future of our company in South Africa – and to South Africa itself.”

Gold Fields, the South African gold mining company, has also managed to control the spread of HIV/Aids within its workforce. In the last three years prevalence rates have stayed steady at 30 per cent.

Ian Cockrill, Gold Fields’ chief executive, believes this has a lot to do with the company’s commitment to education and awareness training, as well as its programme of counselling and testing. “The moral is to understand where you are in the life cycle of the disease and engage the workforce that it is important for them to know their HIV status, and educate them how to maintain an HIV-negative status,” he says. “My sense is that a lot of people thought this would be a complete train smash, but if you deal with it, you can manage it.”

While large companies have an important contribution to make in the control of HIV/Aids it is unrealistic to believe that this alone will be enough. Much of the South African population lives off the land in isolated rural areas and hundreds of thousands of urban poor live in townships such as Soweto.

Many of these people are beyond the reach of big business and of South Africa’s fledgling national health infrastructure. Anil Bhagwanjee, an Aids expert from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an adviser to Lafarge, says: “I understand that antiretroviral treatment is very complex and difficult to follow. So I understand this government’s reluctance about effective treatment roll-out.

“But we need to take care of our people. Antiretrovirals are cheaper than ever before, so to say we can’t afford them has become less plausible. This is not a government problem, not a Lafarge problem – it is a community problem.”

Read last week’s article here

THE STRUGGLE TO REMOVE THE STIGMA FOR THOSE SUFFERING FROM AIDS

Many people in South Africa are reluctant to talk about HIV/Aids and how it is spread because of the social stigma attached to the disease. This is especially noticeable in the workplace as people fear they will lose their jobs or be discriminated against if they admit to being HIV-positive.

Treatment Action Campaign is an organisation that campaigns for greater access to HIV drugs for all South Africans. It is also fighting for equal treatment, both socially and at work, for people with the disease.

TAC’s members are highly motivated individuals who are not afraid to make their HIV status public. Some wear T-shirts with the slogan, “HIV-positive and proud”. Others, such as 44-year-old Gordon Mthembu, who has been living with HIV for 10 years, help lessen the stigma surrounding the disease by talking about their experiences openly.

Mr Mthembu is intelligent and articulate. He formerly worked in human resource management at a lighting company. These days he works for nothing as a TAC counsellor and struggles to support his family.

Many HIV sufferers live in the poorest parts of South Africa, often in townships or isolated rural areas. They have become an underclass that the South African government had, until recently, been reluctant to recognise.

Thabo Mbeki, the president, launched a national treatment programme in November 2003, when more than 5m people were already known to be infected. Mr Mthembu says: “We at TAC are assisting the government to implement and interpret the constitution. We are defending our rights in this baby democracy.”

But he believes the government could do more to help. While many of South Africa’s largest companies have HIV/Aids programmes in place, Aids sufferers claim some companies try to find out the HIV status of job applicants before employing them, even though this is illegal.

“Some companies do try to test potential staff before hiring them,” says one sufferer. “People often agree because they are so desperate for work.”

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