By Linda Bordoni
A new President and his promises to tackle corruption, unemployment and social injustice has ushered in a new era of hope for South Africans.
But enormous challenges remain. With more than 7.1 million HIV positive South Africans, the nation still has the largest HIV epidemic in the world, and the rate of new infections remains depressingly high, especially among young women.
In particular, the mineral rich Rustenburg area with its intense mining activity that attracts large numbers of migrant workers resulting in the disruption of local communities and a breakdown in social, cultural and moral values, exhibits a disproportionately high HIV/Aids infection rate.
The Bishop of Rustenberg, Kevin Dowling has dedicated much of his life and his mission to assist and bring hope to the community providing health assistance and accompaniment through his Tapologo programme.
Bishop Dowling told Linda Bordoni that AIDS is one of the challenges the country needs to tackle in a more holistic way.
HIV/Aids rooted in poverty and injustice
“This is very much a social issue, a political issue as well as a health issue” Bishop Dowling said explaining that it is deeply rooted in issues of poverty and injustice.
In a nation that hosts the biggest number of refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers in Africa, Dowling said there are deep pockets of despair which compound the whole poverty question, and the shack settlements that spring up around the mining communities are fertile breeding ground for more disease, more despair, more injustice.
“At the heart of my 27 years working in this field in this diocese, I always stood in the corner of vulnerable women” he said.
And Dowling pointed to single mothers, whom he said, are the most vulnerable of all. He explained that they migrate from poor rural areas where there is nothing to sustain them and they end up in places like the mines “with the perception there may be a job, and there never is”.
Then, he said, they invariably end up in the shack settlements where they engage in sexual relationships with the miners who have the money and are far from their families: “this is a recipe for a tremendously painful disaster that is HIV/AIDS”.
HIV/Aids off the radar screen in the world
The aids pandemic, Dowling said “has gone off the radar screen in the world,” but in a situation such as the one in Rustenberg it is clear that it is not diminishing as it may be in some parts of the country or of the world.
“In our area the infection rate is increasing” he said.
Dowling said that one part of the problem is the perception that if you give people drugs, that’s the answer, but it isn’t: “these people need to be accompanied”.
“That’s what we have done from the start with trained home care workers who accompany them, visit them, keep them faithful to taking their drugs” he said.
He explained that unless you do this the government’s target of having 90 percent of people who are tested, 90 percent on drugs and 90 percent who are faithful to their drug regime cannot be achieved: “we are light years away from that”.
Partnerships and collaboration key to better care
“At the Tapologo programme, the compliance rate is 98%” Dowling explained and added that he and his staff have motivated and facilitated the setting up of the “Rustenberg Health Forum” that brings together the mine hospitals, the NGOs, the hospices, the government health department, that are all working together to see how partnerships can deliver a better quality health care, particularly in terms of HIV: “It’s slow progress but it’s the way”.
Expressing his hope that with the new political scenario government funding can be spent in a more productive way, that corruption can be eliminated (as the new President has promised), Dowling said there are many things that can be done if burocracy, political will and partnership allow.
With bitterness he told of how after 11 years he was forced to close the Tapologo hospice in-patient unit where the poorest of the poor, dying of HIV/Aids were able to die in real peace and dignity “thanks to the love and the care of the tremendous staff who looked after them”.
“Over 1500 people died there, including 19 children; and at the same time we were able to save 1600 others beginning them on AntiRetroVirals: that’s gone. It was the only in-patient unit in the area” he said.
“It’s just so important that my role as the founder of this group is to keep the spirits of the staff up” he said.
Tapologo means ‘rest’
Bishop Dowling concluded explaining the meaning of the name ‘Tapologo’ which, he said, is a Setswana word (Setswana is one of the many languages spoken in the region) and a concept that comes from the Gospel of Matthew “come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest”.
In Setswana that word “rest” is Tapologo, and it expresses the spirituality of peace, rest, wholesomeness, care, love: “ all those aspects we are trying to do”.
“It’s a struggle to keep going but we are still going, it’s been 21 years now…” he said.