Business Aids

Brad Mears, former SABCOHA CEO
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The South African Business Coalition on Health & Aids (SABCOHA) indicates that over 90 % of people with HIV/ Aids are in the most productive period of their lives; be they workers, managers or employers. According to the International Labour Organisation as many as 36 million of the 39 million people living with HIV are in some form of productive activity.

With a vision to “create healthy workplaces shaping healthy communities” and objectives which include the development of a body of knowledge of national and international best practice on workplace wellness (retaining a focus on HIV and TB); SABCOHA has been working hand-in-hand with industry to create solutions to the HIV/Aids workplace challenge.

Brad Mears, former SABCOHA CEO, is someone who knows the complex interplay and challenges associated with HIV/ Aids and business all too well. In an exclusive with Mears, he speaks to us about some of the pressing issues surrounding HIV/ Aids and business in South Africa.

How does HIV/Aids affect the South African economy in terms of its impact on business?

HIV has had a pervasive impact on all aspects of South African society, from the hard numbers, to culture and values, to the collective psyche of our citizens. Most business leaders have failed to appreciate the impact on our economy. Many leaders only look out for the manifest impacts, such as the loss of skills, the cost of labour, or the impact of HIV on community security, and how this effects work place industrial relations. Where leaders, not only in the business sector, have failed, is to appreciate that HIV is symptomatic of much deeper problems. Indeed the current focus of the National Strategic Plan on HIV, STI’s and TB 2012 – 2016 (NSP) has over-emphasized bio-medical interventions, and not focussed upon longer term behavioural change programs. A recent report from the HSRC would seem to confirm this view.

Although the current interventions in preventing the spread of HIV, such as Governments Anti-retroviral treatment programme are yielding remarkable results, the cost of the drugs, and the failure to address sexual behaviour amongst our youth will have very significant long term effects.
Business leaders cannot simply assess the strength of their business, based upon their balance sheet. They need to understand their business in the context of the levels of social capital, especially among the communities from which they employ their workers.

There is an international trend to avoid the employment of large workforces. The failure to manage the perception of South Africa as the epicentre of HIV, has resulted in a reduction in foreign direct investment in labour intensive industries, and has led to jobless growth. Along with many of the other inflationary pressures, HIV has been an invisible tax, levied upon all of us – be it the cost of death, or the price of drugs. Someone has had to foot the ARV tab, and it is most likely the reader of this article who is paying the most.

Inversely, how does our business activities impact those with HIV/Aids? And are people living with HIV/Aids really supported by business in South Africa?

I think the best person to answer a question like this, is someone who is HIV positive, and who knows their status. However, if I was to speculate, I think that most HIV positive people would feel as if they are not adequately supported. This is not to say that many companies have not created world-class workplaces, where stigma and discrimination levels are low and there is a supportive, enabling environment. Leaders in the mining, construction, automotive and FMCG sectors have pioneered some ground-breaking workplace programs, outlining how people with HIV can be seamlessly accommodated, and genuinely treated as if they are no different to anyone else. However, I would have to say that these type of companies are in the minority in South Africa. There are still too many examples of unfair dismissals, and a long path still has to be walked, especially amongst small, medium and micro-enterprises.

How much has been done since the advent of democracy to address the issue of HIV/Aids in South Africa?

Enormous strides have been made. 2016 will witness the hosting of the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban. This will herald sixteen years since the 13th International Aids Society Conference also held in Durban in 2000. From a situation where South Africa was perceived as an international pariah because of its denialist policies under President Thabo Mbeki, to a situation where we have the largest treatment programme in the world, is a remarkable achievement. The shift from a country where the majority of people did not know their status, to one where over 11 million people were tested for HIV in 2010/11, is phenomenal, especially considering the limited resources our country has. I would have to balance this by saying that too many lives were lost, and too many opportunities missed, especially between government and the private sector.

With regard to the impact that HIV/Aids has on business in South Africa, how does our situation compare to other African countries?

South Africa has had the worst of the impacts of HIV and TB. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have a highly mobile populations coming to, and leaving South Africa. We are often criticized by other countries that we are the exporters of TB to other Southern African countries. Compared to other Southern African countries, we also have a higher population density, and therefore the impact of the epidemic has been greater than countries such as Namibia. Another aspect to consider, is that South Africa is a middle income country. This fact makes it difficult to attract foreign donor funding, when seeking assistance in improving our response to HIV.

Is there enough awareness around the impact that HIV/Aids has on business in South Africa? Is government doing enough to assist in raising awareness around the topic?

The simple answer is no. The support by Government of private sector initiatives has not been forthcoming. Despite numerous opportunities for public/private partnerships to evolve, government have not, in my view, partnered as closely as they should have.

What is the private sector’s responsibility with regards to equipping themselves and their workforce with the knowledge to tackle the issue?

ESKOM has been in the press recently for all the wrong reasons. However, in answer to your question, I will use the slogan that their HIV workplace program is based upon – ‘Do whatever it takes!’ What I wish for, is for closer collaboration between leaders in the private and public sectors, in addressing the deep concerns I raised earlier in this article. There is insufficient social science being used to plan the long term allocation of resources, in addressing the behavioral elements of the epidemic. ARV’s will not make HIV go away. Greater leadership, both nationally, and within business needs to be exhibited in setting the moral standards, especially amongst our youth.

Are there any mentionable collaborations between public and private sector to address the issues surrounding HIV/Aids and economic activity in South Africa?

A pioneering partnership between SABCOHA, the Bargaining Council for the Contract Cleaning Industry, South African Breweries, and the Department of Health witnessed the distribution of over 60 million condoms to tertiary institutions, shabeens, and workplaces serviced by cleaners. Regrettably, there were not enough of these type of partnerships.

Are there any sectors in particular that are facing a heavy burden due to challenges related HIV/Aids?

The sectors which have the greatest impact include, but are not limited to mining, construction, transport and agriculture. The principle is, that HIV has a greater impact among those industries that are simultaneously labour and capital intensive.

Considering that our youth will be our next generation work force, are we seeing enough awareness and prevention-based initiatives in place and aimed at them at the moment?

There are high concerns regarding the sexual behavior amongst our youth, and inadequate resources are being allocated to addressing the issue. The business sector has a key role to play – not only because companies will be employing the next generation of young people into our workplaces. Businesses could also play a powerful role in communicating stronger values, and influencing youth culture through communications and advertising.

Do you have interesting stats or facts or figures relating to how HIV/Aids and Business in South Africa you could share?

Among the many remarkable things that companies achieved between 2000 and 2012, the South African Business Coalition on Health and Aids achieved the following: Over 55 000 micro-enterprises were capacitated through the BizAids Program; In partnership with the Department of Health, SAB, The Bargaining Council for Contract Cleaning Industry, 60 million condoms were distributed; 500 medium size companies were capacitated; seven Provincial Private Sector Strategies have been developed and implemented between 2010 and 2012; and BizWell pioneered the first private sector Monitoring and Evaluation facility.

Ameera Daniels

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Issue 58