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SOUTH AFRICA: The less shiny side of platinum

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
HIV-positive contract workers cannot access treatment at the mines
Rustenberg, 27 August 2008 (PlusNews) - South Africa's mining houses have received kudos for being among the earliest industries to adopt workplace policies and corporate social responsibility programmes mitigating the impacts of HIV/AIDS.

Besides the bottom-line benefits of HIV testing and treatment programmes that keep employees alive and healthy, mining companies have also gained significant public relations mileage out of such initiatives.

But the corporate social responsibility track records of several platinum mines in the Rustenberg area of South Africa's North West Province took a knock in 2007, with the release of a report by the Bench Marks Foundation, a faith-based research organisation.

The report took issue with the mines' handling of environmental damage resulting from their operations, and highlighted the negative health impacts of the sprawling squatter camps mushrooming nearby as a result of the platinum boom.

Mine policies such as replacing hostels (employee housing) with "living-out" (rental) allowances have contributed to demands for housing and other services that far outstrip supply. The majority of mineworkers, who are mostly single men from other provinces or countries, have taken up residence in informal settlements with no access to water, electricity, or sewerage.

"In informal settlements sex work is rife and, combined with rampant alcoholism, mine workers run the gauntlet of STDs and HIV/AIDS," the report noted.

Webster Diale, manager of HIV/AIDS programmes at Impala Platinum from 1999 until recently, confirmed that women who moved to the settlements and could not find work were forced to rely on men to provide for them. "Usually they needed more than one to survive, so sex work went up a lot," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

HIV prevalence among pregnant women in Freedom Park, one of five squatter camps in the Rustenberg area, is now at about 52 percent, according to a community HIV/AIDS programme called Tapologo, which runs a clinic there.

The demand for public health services has outpaced provision. The Bench Marks report urges the mines to take some responsibility for conditions in the squatter camps that have contributed to the high HIV infection rate, but Gillian Gresak, HIV/AIDS manager for Anglo-Platinum, one of the largest mines in Rustenberg, argued that informal settlements were "a political issue that doesn't bear any relevance in relation to HIV and AIDS".

Anglo-Platinum does support a local NGO providing home-based care to HIV/AIDS patients living in the settlements surrounding its mine, and Impala Platinum supports Tapologo in doing similar work near its operations.

Impala is also part of a joint venture between several local mining groups and the department of health that is trying to help commercial sex workers lower their HIV risk by training peer educators to teach them condom negotiation skills.

"We tried to respond because it's not only the women at risk, but also their clients - our employees," said Diale. "But the intention of the programme wasn't to eliminate sex work, which is a huge undertaking because ... [of] poverty and unemployment."

Treatment gaps

The mines provide free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to their HIV-positive employees and, in many cases, to their dependants, but the Bench Marks report points out that the mines are using increasing numbers of contract workers who do not qualify for these programmes.

"HIV-positive contract workers do not appear on the statistical records of the mine, and they do not present a burden on the medical expenses of the corporation," the report commented.

Anglo-Platinum's Gresak said about a third of the company's 30,000 employees in Rustenberg were contract workers, but declined to comment on the report's findings.

''In terms of HIV, there's a bit of competition between the different mines; it's a marketing exercise''
Diale responded that contract workers at Impala, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce, could make use of the mine's voluntary HIV counselling and testing services, but could only get treatment at Impala if their employer was paying for them to belong to the company's medical scheme.

"It all depends on whether they [the company owning the mine] are a good employer, who looks after their employees, or whether they only like them when they're fit and can work," he said. "The mine doesn't have control over that."

Some HIV-positive contract workers are getting ARVs from Tapologo, which distributes them through its clinics in the informal settlements, while others are getting them from the public health sector, but Stephen Blakeman, Tapologo's programme manager, pointed out that both the non-governmental and public health sectors were experiencing budget and human-resource shortfalls that prevented them from meeting the ever growing demand.

"The government is also limited and over-stretched, so it tries to shed some responsibility onto the private sector," said Blakeman, who noted that the government requires mines to incorporate social responsibility programmes into their operations to qualify for licenses. "The constraints are that [the mines] are focused on their core business from day-to-day; they're not qualified to do HIV/AIDS work."

According to Blakeman, the health department has failed to partner either with the mines or with the NGO sector; the result was three very distinct sectors delivering ARV treatment, with "plenty of people falling through the gaps" in between.

Diale noted that partnership in tackling HIV/AIDS was also lacking between the area's mining houses. "In terms of HIV, there's a bit of competition between the different mines," he said. "It's a marketing exercise; I don't like it at all. It's all about meaningful partnerships, and whatever muscle we have as the corporate world, we should come together."

ks/he

See also, SOUTH AFRICA: Hope in a shipping container clinic

Theme(s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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