South Africa: the difficulties of admitting you have AIDS

Back to blogging some more on my brief trip to South Africa the week before last – on my last day we were taken to the mines – open cast coal mines – by Anglo-American. (Click here for photos from the trip).

Brian Brink of Anglo American, who is a doctor whose energy and commitment to tackling AIDS seemed limitless and who had pioneered their program over years, had been with us throughout the tour. Today was to see the actual work going on – on site.

Not going detail by detail – but to capture the picture – the landscape as we approached the mining area was stark beyond belief – punctuated by the machinery of mining, sticking up and dominating the horizon with little oases where head offices, hospital facilities or clinics occasionally were to be found.

I confess I thought it a god-forsaken place to live – and the truth is that it is a pretty harsh life out there for the miners in a hard industry. But what struck me most throughout the day was that the workforce and their well-being was at the heart of this business – not in a touchy feely sort of way – but because decent treatment meant a healthy work force and a healthy work force meant productivity.

As we arrived at the first Head Office – we were greeted by John Standish White – and what a character he was. He put me in mind of a commanding officer – fair but firm, loved by his men and unafraid of tackling whatever issues came forth. In the room were all representatives from the three unions, the medical staff and the key managers. Briefed as to the prevalence of AIDS and the programs Anglo-American (AA) had put in place – we set off to see it all for ourselves.

The first group we met were ‘peer educators’ – a group of women (all volunteers) whose role it was to go amongst the workforce explaining what AIDS was and HIV – and that coming for voluntary testing and counselling was good because now (as opposed to only a few years ago) there was treatment – the anti-retrovirals – that meant you could live with AIDS.

We went onto to see the skills training area where women were being taught how to sew, embroider etc and were making gorgeous tableware. Next door there was restaurant / cook training. Those learning were generally the family of the miners. With relatively little possible employment in the area – skills training is vital. Likewise we met trainee metal workers and visited a youth centre.

All the while we are on Anglo American territory and all of these schemes are Anglo American programs. And we visited a clinic where the workers go for voluntary testing and counselling. We meet Peter – one of the very, very few miners who have ‘disclosed’ their HIV positive status and who are invaluable in trying to encourage and educate others to come forward. The stigma is still severe and fidelity not a local strong point.

At Kleinkopje colliery they are (now) having remarkably high numbers come forward in most of the departments – with the hardcore miners remaining the most difficult nut to crack in terms of persuading them to get testing. But the new incidence rate is still too high – albeit the trend is downwards. And ultimately to beat the disease they want to see no new infections.

We were then put into protective clothing to visit one of the open cast mines. We heard the blasting loud and clear before we leave the office block – and we bumped along a road constructed solely to reach the mines. What is particularly interesting in this stark, empty terrain of deep pits where coal has been mined is that there now is in place a program of refilling the mines and putting the earth back to how it was before it was mined. The scars of extraction removed and the landscape reinstated.

At the pit itself, we posed for photos with the excavating digger behind us. Massive piece of machinery with a cradle which could hold a London bus. I asked John about Anglo American’s views on moving into renewables etc – and it would seem that they are already planning in that direction. As I would hope.

Anyway – I want to get onto the last stop of the day – which was to Anglo American’s piece de resistance. Their hospital – brand spanking new and for all their employees. We had a presentation from Dr Pienar who runs the hospital – but the main event was to meet the local community.

We were told that it is possible that some members of the community may ‘disclose’ their status during this meeting. We entered the room where around I guess eighty or so people were seated – some are miners, their families, health workers from the hospital and so on. We sat – and there was another presentation about the work Anglo American are doing with AIDS and HIV – and then they ask a young guy, one of the health team, to come to the front and they announced that this brave young guy is willing to stand there, publicly and say he is HIV positive. And he did – and then asked if anyone else in the room who is HIV positive wants to come down and join him and disclose their status.

There was no movement at first. And then a guy in the front row stood up and moved towards the front – and then another and another and another. A whole torrent of people come down and faced the room. All HIV positive. All ‘disclosing’ for the very first time. This had never happened before.

Dr Brink said that this was the day they had waited for for many years. And then each of those who had come forward told their story. I was weeping. It was the most extraordinary occasion. And I would like to think that whilst there were many reasons and good things that came out of us three MPs visiting South Africa – this ‘event’ had partly happened because just by us being there we provided a catalyst for the occasion.

It was so moving. They were so brave. And I guess that from this will grow a support group for people living with AIDS and HIV for the first time.

It was quite something!