Sir Richard and owners of game lodges build clinic for poor community

HELPING HAND: British entrepreneur and community clinic builder Richard Branson. Pic. Martin Rhodes. 04/11/04. © Business Day.
HELPING HAND: British entrepreneur and community clinic builder Richard Branson. Pic. Martin Rhodes. 04/11/04. © Business Day.

Andrew Quinn

Andrew Quinn

Wealthy tourists jetting into South Africa to stay at luxury safari lodges pay top dollar for the illusion of danger, epitomised by a trumpeting elephant or a lion moving in for a kill.

But lodge workers and the impoverished surrounding communities face a threat far more deadly than the leopards and lions that thrill the visitors: South Africa's HIV-Aids epidemic, which is one of the worst in the world.

British entrepreneur Richard Branson knows the cost of Aids first-hand. A number of employees at his private Ulusaba game reserve have died from the disease, which has infected an estimated 25percent to 30percent of the residents of nearby communities.

Now Branson, the owners of a number of nearby game lodges and the US government are doing something about it - a first for the tourist industry in South Africa.

"Not only should the South African government feel guilty about it, we as a company should also feel guilty," Branson said at the opening of a new community clinic funded in part by his charity, Virgin Unite.

"There are 100000 people in this region and 25000 to 30000 of them will die unless they get antiretroviral drugs."

The building of the clinic was inspired by the case of Donald Makhubele, an Ulusaba worker, poet and songwriter who detailed his battle against HIV-Aids in a series of essays.

"This is not a disease, it is a war that is in Africa, aiming to destroy our continent," Makhubele wrote shortly before his death.

Branson's Ulusaba is typical of South Africa's top-end safari lodges, which trade on a glamorous "Out of Africa" image at odds with the realities of life in the poor townships just beyond the game parks' fencing.

Often paying close to R7200 a night, guests enter a storybook Africa of regal animals, gourmet cuisine and flawless service, where a day can begin with a sighting of a herd of elephants and end with an aromatherapy massage.

Residents of the area are not so lucky.

Ignored as a nominally independent black homeland under white apartheid rule, the Agincourt region of Mpumalanga is close to the famous Kruger National Park and remains one of the country's poorest regions.

Unemployment is estimated at up to 50percent, most residents have no access to running water and medical facilities are often remote from the poorest areas.

Despite the ravages of HIV-Aids, local people continue to shy away from confronting the disease - a sign, activists say, of its stigma and the difficulty of accessing treatment.

"People here sometimes don't seem to be too aware of it, they don't like to talk about it," said Nonhlanhla Ndlovu, 22, a member of a youth group that stages performances in an effort to raise awareness of the disease.

"I can't say the community is very supportive. When people think of Aids, they think of fear."

Branson's idea, developed with game rangers and community workers, was to work with major donors and the local community to develop a battle plan against the disease.

The result, unveiled recently at a ceremony attended by the US and British ambassadors, is the region's first autonomous treatment centre aimed at providing testing, counselling and HIV drugs to as many as 75000 people.

Wealthy visitors to Ulusaba are encouraged to donate what they can to the project.

The heart of the clinic - and the element that Branson and others hope will be replicated in other rural regions - is the "Togatainer": a fully transportable, self-contained laboratory in a shipping container.

Equipped with its own generator, the mobile laboratory, built by Toga Molecular Biology Laboratories, brings key elements of HIV care, including blood testing and monitoring of viral loads, within reach of remote communities.

"It's plug-and-play. Presto, you immediately have local capacity to treat patients and, most importantly, to monitor their progress," said Hugo Tempelman, a doctor who worked with Branson's team to develop the clinic.

There are now two Togatainer labs in operation in South Africa and it is hoped that more will be brought in to fight disease in a country still desperately short of hospitals and clinics.

The R50million Agincourt Health Centre, also funded by the US government's Aids programme and by mining giant Anglo Coal, marks a new level of cooperation between the game lodges and the communities that serve them. -Reuters