Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Mining giant tries to erase stigma of AIDS

Anglo Coal is providing AIDS treatment for its workers, but is this the way to save South Africa?

By Terry Macalister  /  THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Archie Msiza is slumped on a wooden chair at the Highveld hospital, which sits in the middle of a flat, prairie-landscape pock-marked only by colliery shafts, 100km east of Johannesburg.

In his dark sports top with a tear on the front, Msiza looks too small to grapple with the heavy machinery needed to wash coal destined for foreign power stations.

He leans for reassurance into his medical adviser -- Sister Rose Masemola -- and speaks in a whisper, but this is not because of the HIV that runs round his veins. The youthful 42-year-old mineworker has agreed to talk but is still nervous his name might be disclosed in the newspaper. He has not admitted even to his friends or colleagues he has the sexually transmitted disease because he fears discrimination.

A huge stigma is still attached to the illness in South Africa.

"The only person I could tell was my wife," he says

"That was very hard. I had to tell her I had too many girlfriends. I was drinking a lot," he adds.

Msiza (not his real name) is in fact one of the lucky ones out of the millions estimated to be suffering in the country of his birth.

He was admitted to the hospital run by his employer, Anglo Coal, nearly 12 months ago, suffering from tuberculosis as a result of an HIV-depressed immune system.

He agreed to an AIDS test, was diagnosed as having the potential killer virus, and became one of the first to be put on a free cocktail of anti-retroviral drugs provided by the London-listed Anglo American group that controls Anglo Coal.

A year on, Msiza insists he feels "great," and boasts that his life has pretty much returned to normal. He is working back at his old job, is playing for a local football team and has an active sex life.

There are more girlfriends, but this time he insists he uses the free condoms handed out by Anglo Coal.

Msiza can spot the other coal miners around him who are suffering. He would like to help, but argues that he could not do that without revealing his own status.

"I am afraid to do that," he says bluntly.

More worrying is the position of his wife. While Msiza is happy that she has shown no outward sign of the AIDS virus, he knows she has been infected and yet has no access to the treatment she needs.

Anglo is trying to safeguard the future of its 124,300 local employees, but has so far balked at the cost of extending the treatment to wife and family. The corporation, that controls coal, gold and aluminum mines, believes a quarter of its South African work force is infected: that means 30,000 people.

It insists it has no firm statistics yet of the financial impact of this catastrophic epidemic but knows productivity must be hit by increased absenteeism and loss of trained staff.

A recent study by the World Bank on the impact of AIDS warned that if nothing was done South Africa could face "complete economic collapse" within four generations.

The situation has not been helped by a government that has moved only slowly from complete denial to indecisive dithering. In the meantime Anglo last year became one of the first, and certainly the biggest, employer to embark on groundbreaking plans to provide anti-retroviral drugs to all its infected workers. Since then other firms such as British drinks group Diageo have promised to do the same.

The strategy, whether for compassionate or commercial reasons, sounds simple, but Brian Brink -- the architect of the moves at Anglo -- says it's actually hugely complicated. Now, 12 months after the executive board gave the go-ahead to distribute AZT and other drugs, it still has only 700 staff receiving treatment.

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