Soweto Lutherans ‘passionate’ about AIDS work despite stigma challenge

By Peter Kenny
November 29, 2011

Health care workers at a Lutheran programme say the spectre of HIV and AIDS stigmatisation still thrives in Soweto, a large South African city that started as a string of black townships near white Johannesburg in the days of apartheid.

In Soweto’s Jabavu suburb, a group of young South Africans and people from Europe and North America work at the Diakonia AIDS Ministry, a programme launched and supported by churches in the Lutheran World Federation.

They spoke of passion for their work which includes dispatching support staff to visit people and families affected by AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases, both at their homes and in the hospitals.

The observance of World AIDS Day on 1 December has a special significance in South Africa. According to the United Nations agency dealing with the pandemic, UNAIDS, the country has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world.

Bishop Ndanganane P. Phaswana, who heads the Central Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa, and is a founding member of DAM, said, “With 5.6 million people living with this virus [in South Africa], one can’t speak of theology and mission here without discussing this pandemic.”

Many people, added the LWF Council member, “do not know their status.”

DAM executive director, Lutheran pastor the Rev Selby Mugivhi, said, “In the church, we look to the healing and restoration of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS and their communities. We seek to lead people to acceptance and support of those living with or affected by [the disease].”

Willam Tshoke from Krugersdorp works for the South African Council of Churches as an HIV and AIDS facilitator through DAM in churches throughout the industrial Gauteng province. He said, “DAM is Lutheran run, but it is ecumenical. It works for everybody.”

A number of the health care workers at DAM are HIV positive. They tell patients who they visit at homes or in hospitals openly about their status in order to persuade them not to stigmatise carriers of the disease in their own families.

An estimated 310,000 South Africans died of AIDS in 2009. HIV prevalence is 17.8 per cent among those aged 15-49 years, with some age groups being particularly affected: almost one in three women aged 25-29 and over a quarter of men aged 30-34 are living with the virus.

“HIV is part of our life. We breathe it and live with it in every aspect of our lives. It is not only our concern, but that of all spheres of our society. The Church needs to address the issue not just on Sundays, but constantly, as it affects all in it,” remarked Colleen E. Cunningham of the Moravian Church in South Africa, who serves on the LWF Council and its Meeting of Officers.

In 2010, South African President Jacob Zuma’s administration changed the policies of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, and launched a major HIV counseling and testing campaign, which DAM workers said has made their work easier.

Two caretakers of orphans, working as ancillary nurses, spoke of how they seek to support families which have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Evelyn Saomatse said the spiritual counseling they receive through pastor Mugivhi helps them to deal with the work tension they endure. “We need to be happy in our work. This helps us to give to those who may have no one to care for them. It’s a very stressful environment.

“As caregivers, we’re able to learn about HIV and AIDS from this job. When we impart information on medication and how to use it, we feel good. Patients need to know their treatment regimen. Some want to sell their medication and many are in denial,” noted Leratamang Mahlake.

Ntombikayise Ngakane, a 20-year-old social worker auxiliary seconded by the SACC to do practical work said, “DAM is more than an organisation; we are a family. People know each other’s backgrounds.”

She concurred with two other auxiliaries, Busisiwe Molalugi, 20, and Mapula Phatshwane, 24, both from Soweto, noting, “The DAM staff connect so well with their patients on a personal basis. They love what they do. You can see the joy when they talk about their patients.”

Speaking of the challenges they face, Ngakane said, “We want to revamp people’s mind-sets. In Soweto, most of the youth are into partying or alcohol and stuff like that.”

There are additional problems like teen pregnancies. “Because we are the youth, we can empower [fellow youth],” Phatshwane added.

But the social workers also have to deal with the way older people think. “The older ones concentrate too much on traditional ways. They don’t take the medical things into consideration.”

LWF General Secretary, the Rev Martin Junge, visiting the DAM program during a regional conference for churches in Africa earlier this year, said, “I’m impressed with the passion of the people working on this programme, but I was concerned to note workers saying that stigmatisation is still such an impediment in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

“The global AIDS campaign ‘Getting to Zero’ especially calls upon our churches to work toward zero discrimination and zero stigma in the fight against AIDS,” said Junge, reflecting on the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day (1 December).

Out of the estimated 33 million people living with HIV worldwide, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 22 million. According to UNAIDS, HIV infections are on decline globally, and there are more people today living with the virus because of greater access to medication. In 2010, there were around 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths compared to 2.2 million in the mid-2000s.


© Peter Kenny is a freelance journalist and was formerly editor-in-chief of ENInews. He contributes occasionally to Ekklesia. This piece was originally written for Lutheran World Information.

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