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South African Business Tackles HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is having a devastating impact on businesses in South Africa. One out of four South Africans of working age is HIV-positive. Anglo American, one of the world's largest diversified mining companies, recognized the toll HIV was taking on its employees and its business. In 2002, it introduced a comprehensive prevention program in the workplace, the first of its kind in South Africa.

The acting regional manager at Anglo American, Sydwell Sibiya, describes main elements of the company's HIV/AIDS program.

"HIV and AIDS pose a threat to employees, families and the communities," says Sibiya. "Our effort focuses on combating the spread of HIV and AIDS. Also, by so doing, we are ensuring that people can live a healthy life."

Sibiya says the company offers voluntary counseling and testing so employees can know their HIV status, and it runs awareness, education and prevention campaigns.

"When we talk about care, support, and treatment, we also make sure that proper care and treatment is there for our employees, those that especially are HIV-positive. Free treatment to all employees and their dependents," says Sibiya.

Prevention, Testing and Treatment

Anglo American employs 100,000 people in South Africa. It has the world's largest workplace program for the prevention, counseling, voluntary testing and treatment of HIV.

The head of underground operations at Anglo Coal, John Standish-White, says about 16 percent of the workforce is HIV positive.

He says Anglo American has a medical center and offers employees and their dependents free nutritional supplements and anti-retroviral treatment.

"We think there is a strong business case to be keeping people negative, as well as for the 16 percent of us who are positive, to be paying for those people to be actively on treatment and cared for ... we believe that makes good business sense as well," says Standish-White.

Simon Ndiangamandia has been HIV positive for seven years and is on anti-retroviral therapy. He looks fit and healthy and has a positive outlook on life. He says he is not happy with his HIV status, but has learned to accept it and treat it like any other chronic illness.

"I have made a major change in the people here in this place," says Ndiangamandia. "I remember I was the first employee in the whole company to become public with my status and I did that just, mainly not just for myself only, but for the workforce of the company so that they can know that they can also live well."

Ndiangamandia says he always tells his colleagues that anyone can get HIV.

"And that is why people must keep on testing so that they can know if they are negative. And, if they are negative, they must do themselves a favor and go and stay negative for life, not just for the whole year. And, if they happen to be positive, they must not be sick and they must not die," said Ndiangamandia.

Health Investment Is Good Business

Anglo American Chief Medical Officer Brian Brink says in 2002 the company was confronted by an epidemic that seemed unmanageable and out of control. He says investors were having second thoughts about putting money into a business that might not survive with that burden of disease.

So, in a huge leap of faith, he says Anglo American decided to make AIDS drugs available to its employees.

"We did not know exactly what it was going to cost overall," says Brink. "We knew it was going to be a lot of money ... actually the results have been dramatic, absolutely dramatic in terms of, first of all, in saving lives and making sure that people who did not have access to this treatment could get it. The cost of treatment is far outweighed by the benefits that we get back. And, the benefits are, in particular, much reduced absenteeism due to HIV infections."

Dr. Brink is on the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He says he is using this position to persuade employers that investing in health is good for business.

"When you come to developing countries and these are the emerging economies of the future and you see what can be achieved by these investments in health, it really is quite dramatic," says Brink. "We certainly have shown in our business the economics of dealing with AIDS effectively. You can turn around what was once for us a huge threat into something that is entirely manageable. In fact, it has a very positive impact for out business. It allows our business to thrive and to grow."

Dr. Brink says a healthier population provides better opportunities for business.