HIV /AIDS: Getting to grips with Aids

Getting to grips with Aids – moving beyond the company

When a long-serving employee at Autoliv died from an Aids related illness, CEO Ralph Caspari resolved to set up an Aids Forum. Started in March 2000, the company was one of the first to start such a forum.With funding from the Swedish Workplace HIV/Aids Programme (SWHAP)* and Autoliv itself, the Forum comprised 12 volunteers drawn from workers and management including the company sister. Since then the Forum members have been taken through training to counsel the 120-strong workforce on HIV/Aids.Proof that their awareness programme is working is that just six years ago, voluntary HIV prevalence tests showed that of the 82% of the workforce that came forward to be tested, only 6,6% were found to be HIV positive.Since then the percentage of those tested has climbed to 94% of employees and the prevalence rate is sitting at 4.2% after one person passed away. A further testing is planned before the end of the year that will for the first time include contract workers as well. “We need to do the testing so that we can budget for next year,” says Thabiso Masela, chairperson of the Forum

CounsellingBut stopping new infections and monitoring current infections is just one of the objectives of the Forum. As trained counsellors, Forum members are often called upon to counsel workers who have lost loved ones to Aids related illnesses. “The training has taught us how to deal with people’s problems,” says Masela. “You mustn’t be the solution finder; the person that comes to you for advice must be the one to find his/her own solutions. Your role as a counsellor is to help them decide what to do.”It has also taught them how to listen, how to get a person to talk, what questions to ask. “You have to go deeper and deeper until you get to the core of the problem. You don’t need to suppress anybody; if you let their feelings come out it will be easier to find solutions,” says Masela.

Destigmatising AidsMasela believes that one of the biggest challenges the Forum faces is to transform it into a Wellness Forum – “if you call it an Aids forum you are stigmatising it. We want Aids to become a normal illness like cancer so that people are not afraid to talk about it.”Part of the success of the programme is that the Forum is not seen as a management Forum. “It’s for workers themselves, we are not working for management to run it,” says shop steward chairperson and member of the Forum, Rosa Mkhize. That is why a team building meeting is planned with Aids Forum members from other Swedish companies, Sandvik and Assa Abloy which do not have such effective Forums.

Beyond the workplaceBut the Autoliv Aids Forum’s activities spread wider than just the workplace. Currently the company is paying for the tertiary education for the child of an employee who died from an Aids related illness. Employees frequently contribute toiletries and old clothes to three Aids-Ngos and an orphanage in the area. This year the Forum’s focus is on the families of the employees. Spouses and partners were invited to a dinner late last year where the Aids awareness programme in the company was explained. This caused some spouses to say that “they didn’t know that their partners had tested”, says Mkhize. A further activity that will involve employees’ children (including teenagers) is also planned before the end of the year.Next year the Forum plans to reach out to communities as well as try to encourage supplier companies to set up their own Aids Forums.

*SWHAP is jointly funded by the International Council of Swedish Industry and the Swedish Metalworkers Union

Looking after the other halfJust round the corner from Autoliv, lies an informal settlement. It nestles amongst old mine shafts, mine dumps and mounds of excavated soil long ago grassed over. Gum trees rustle in the breeze which is not quite strong enough to blow the dust from the bare ground.Amongst this disordered mass of shacks, lives Sarah Mkwanyana with more than 15 children ranging in age from 16 months to 16 years. Her sky-blue corrugated iron ‘house’, sets itself apart from its drab neighbours. Set on a concrete slab, her home is spotless, in and out. The children sleep in two rooms. Bunks and cots line the walls of the rooms containing just the bare necessities. Outside, small children climb all over the jungle gym, their giggles and chuckles filling the air. The fenced property provides safety for the children whom she says would otherwise roam the area and face the dangers of the old mine shafts and the informal settlementHerself an orphan, her home has grown over the years. About 75% of her children have lost parents due to Aids related illnesses. “Some parents left their children with me when they got sick and weren’t able to care for them anymore. They never came back to fetch them.”And this has caused her problems. They have no birth certificates and without birth certificates she cannot apply for grants for them.”The social worker has been here. She always asks about the menu for the children,” says Mkwanyana. But when it comes to sorting out their grants, the help is not forthcoming.While some of the children that go to school are receiving grants, the school still demands R150 a year per child in school fees. Just where are those ‘no-school fees’ schools that government is talking about?She survives on occasional donations from Autoliv workers and others but it is not easy. She has a gas freezer but for the past few months she has not been able to buy gas because of the Gauteng-wide shortage. Autoliv shop stewards and Aids forum members, Rosa Mkhize and Sinny Motale, write down her needs. The Swedish Workplace HIV/Aids programme has funds for those in need in surrounding communities and together with Autoliv itself can hopefully help Sarah and her ‘family’.As we drive back to ordered roads and substantial houses, Rosa comments:”I live so close. I always thought that people living there were ‘no good’. But to meet someone like Sarah….”