With more than five million people infected, HIV/AIDS continues to destroy lives and communities across South Africa and it affects everyone, including employees at companies like Volvo Southern Africa. However through education and the ‘Star for Life’ programme, Volvo is contributing to the fight against this deadly disease.
South Africa has more people with HIV/AIDS than anywhere else in the world and the township of Umlazi, southwest of Durban, has one of the highest rates of infection within South Africa. The disease has, and continues, to decimate the community.
“The teachers are losing a lot of their learners because they were born with HIV. At high school some of them say they are losing children at grade 11 and 12. We are losing them at grade 8 and grade 9,” says Ms D.N. Fulela, Head Mistress at the Vukhuzake High School in Umlazi. “This year we got 1273 learners and, when we counted at the beginning of the year, we had 441 learners who are without parents.”
The sheer scale of the tragedy has prompted Volvo Southern Africa to sponsor ‘Star for Life’ programmes in sixteen high schools. ‘Star for Life’ is a non-profit organisation that aims to reduce infection rates by giving high school students a better understanding of the disease and how it’s contracted. The key message is to encourage youth to pursue their dreams for a better future, in the hope that it will inspire them to make better life-affirming decisions.
Volvo Southern Africa’s commitment to ‘Star for Life’ began in 2008 with the sponsorship of eight local high schools in Durban.
“In every country where Volvo is operating, we are trying to take up some kind of social responsibility, and in South Africa we have a major challenge – HIV and AIDS,” claims Anders Lindblad, President of Volvo Southern Africa. “It is a major problem. It’s affecting everyone. It is affecting our employees as well as the employees of our customers.”
The Vukhuzake High School was one of the eight high schools chosen and the programme has proven to be a huge success. Apart from sponsoring counselling and treatment programmes, Volvo Trucks Southern Africa has also donated computers and a new library.
“It has helped our school a lot because in our environment there is a lot of crime. There is a lot of drug abuse,” says Numbuso Msomi, a grade 12 student. “They give us tips on how to prevent teenage pregnancy because it can block our future and destroy what we have aspired too. The goals that we have, the fantasies etc.”
In 2011, Volvo decided to not only renew their commitment to the eight high schools in Durban, but to also extend it to another eight high schools in Johannesburg, near their head office. In the near future, they also hope to sponsor schools in Cape Town too.
Addressing the myths and stigmas
However such is the scale of the epidemic in South Africa, fighting HIV/AIDS is less about charity than necessity, and while ‘Star for Life’ forms the backbone of Volvo’s fight against the disease, their commitment extends all the way to the factory floor.
On the outskirts of Durban, only a short distance from the Vukhuzake High School, lies Volvo Southern Africa’s production plant. As with all of Volvo’s sites, most of their employees live in communities like Umlazi that have been overrun by HIV/AIDS. Consequently, it effects their daily operations, and Volvo Trucks Southern Africa has seen the devastating impact of the disease first hand.
“We quickly realised that people in the company were dying from AIDS,” says Ronelle van Eeden, Human Resources General Manager for Volvo Southern Africa. “Knowledge of the disease was very bad, so we decided to do something to increase levels of education.”
In 2004, a prevention and awareness programme was initiated, which offered testing, counselling, treatment and support to all Volvo employees in South Africa. Due to the myths and stigmas surrounding the disease, even trying to convince people to undergo a test is a huge challenge, resulting in people unknowingly spreading the disease. But thanks to the programme, 97 per cent of Volvo Southern Africa’s employees have now been tested and know their status.
“In the time that we have introduced the programme, we’ve had only five additional infections in the organisation,” says Ronelle. “To have only five employees become positive in six years is very good and shows that our programme is working !”
Volvo’s relationship with the ‘Star for Life’ schools has also proved to be mutually beneficial. The Volvo Truck Centre in Pinetown, west of Durban, currently employs nine apprentices who were recruited through the ‘Star for Life’ schools, in a related programme known as ‘Skills for Life’.
“At first we thought it was a bit of a risk and they would be disadvantaged by their lack of experience, but the results have been amazing,” says Tasleem Shaik, Finance and administration manager at Pinetown, and by her own admission, a surrogate mother for the apprentices. “But all nine apprentices are excellent workers. They have been highly motivated and have a great attitude.”
The apprentices are already invaluable members of the Pinetown workshop and on track to become fully qualified personnel. Given the successful outcome it is already decided that 20 students from Pinetown and the new ‘Star for Life’ schools in Johannesburg will be admitted as apprentices during 2012. The success is tangible proof of ‘Star for Life’s main message – that it is possible to realise your dreams for a better future. However it also has the potential to help Volvo Southern Africa with competence development and dealing with skills shortages
Throughout the whole organisation, from their head office in Johannesburg to the factory floor in Durban, Volvo Southern Africa needs to address HIV/AIDS, as the problem is too big to ignore. ‘Star for Life’ plays a vital role in the fight as it allows them to connect with local communities and reach out to those that matter most.
“You can’t go in to solve the sickness,” claims Anders Lindblad. “You need to work with the new generation. That is the reason we went into ‘Star for Life’, because then we are working with young kids in the normal school system to help them to build a future.”