Most workplaces in South Africa currently offer their employees free HIV tests. But fear and taboo are still present. Johannes Phetoe is open about his disease after following his wife's advice and joining the workplace's unusual health programme.
He says he will take a course in rhetoric. All to get the message out. Johannes Phetoe is sure that if many people tell their stories, even more would have the courage to talk about HIV and take the test.
“I know their story, and I too have said that it would never happen to me. It's about knowledge, there are many people out there in the workplace who still do not know anything about HIV/AIDS,” he says.
Heavy vehicles roar outside Atlas Copco's headquarters in South Africa. One day in June 2011, John Phetoe travelled from Rustenburg where he normally works to the company's domains in Johannesburg. He looks out over the workshop, which looks just like the one in Rustenburg. There he services vehicles, machinery and equipment for miners.
The memories of how near death he was shadow the 34-year-old engineer's face, and he adjusts his red polo neck as if it is too tight.
“I was sweating, couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. My father hired a witch doctor who gave me a drink I could not stand. But my wife said I had to see a doctor and get in touch with Atlas Copco's healthcare. A woman at the company spoke calmly and seemed knowledgeable, so I took a test.”
Johannes tested positive. His CD4 count*, November 2009, was down to 13. For six months in hospital he fought against both HIV and tuberculosis. The company gave advice and paid for his care. Phetoe thought his wife would leave him on the day he was admitted.
“But she supported me one hundred per cent,” he says, and proudly shows a photo of his wife Thembimi.
During the harsh course of treatment, Thembimi Phetoe also gave her husband the courage to break the taboo of speaking about the disease.
“Previously, I thought I owned my wife, but today I have great respect for her. She helped me to open up. She is amazing!”
It is common for companies in South Africa to offer employees free testing. But an approach that Swedish companies take, in cooperation with SWHAP (Swedish Workplace HIV/AIDS Programme), is to talk about values, attitudes and equality. The model brings together employees, union representatives and managers. Together they draw up a policy on how they should deal with HIV and other problems. Trainers are appointed to increase employees' knowledge of HIV. Family days and theatre also take place, and every year more and more people take the test.
Dialogue resounds from a small room in the training centre, where three actors serve seriousness with humour. The men play the part of perfect wives, and suddenly the mood becomes very serious, when a story begins of a man who works far away from home. He is unfaithful to his wife. He does not use protection.
“What we see on the stage is taken from real life. We are bad at taking care of each other and protecting ourselves,” observes Johannes Phetoe.
At the same time, in the next room, a queue winds up to the nurses who weigh, measure and take samples. Lerato Mgwevu tests blood pressure. She checks cholesterol and glucose levels, and also checks for tuberculosis and HIV.
“The results of the tests are followed up in confidential conversations. In the programme, we also attend to families,” she says softly.
Johannes Phetoe's wife and six-year-old daughter have also taken the test. They do not carry the virus. As for the father, his CD4 count today is up at 507. He is strong and Atlas Copco has regained a skilled mechanical engineer. In his private life, he is painting a bright future, with a new house and a room for his daughter.
And so he returns to the course which will turn him into a trainer, so that he may tell his story to employees and others, and say that it is possible to live with HIV.
“I could not have done this without my wife, Atlas Copco and God. Yes, I thank God too because I am a Christian.”
* In an HIV test, the CD4 count is checked; this represents the immune system's most important cells.