IRIN, 29 November 2002, SOUTH AFRICA: Learning positively

JOHANNESBURG, 29 November (IRIN) - Situated in an informal settlement about 30-km east of South Africa's main city of Johannesburg, Dan Pharasi Primary is a state-run school coming to grips with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in its community.

The area is called "Emaphupheni" - a place of dreams. For many of the settlement's inhabitants, having a place to call their own - no matter how small - is a dream come true.

"The conditions here are really terrible. Most of our learners' parents are poor, unemployed and illiterate," Phyllis Koti, the school's principal, told PlusNews.

Inevitably, in all this poverty, HIV/AIDS has become a serious concern for the school. "As a principal, I just couldn't stand there and look on," Koti said.

Ignorance about the disease led Koti to invite a community project for people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) to the school. "I had always heard about people living with AIDS but I had never [knowingly] seen such a person before," she said.

The Thuso community project uses the school premises to distribute food to people living with HIV/AIDS. Koti has also provided an empty plot of land for the PWAs to grow vegetables. A day is also set aside every term for an HIV-positive person to share their experience with the school.

"Everybody is comfortable with the project and we have had no complaints from parents. In fact last term a Grade 10 learner persuaded her HIV-positive mother to come and talk to the rest of the school. It's a reality that is openly talked about and accepted here," Koti said.

But not all schools are this lucky. Most are still trying to come to terms with the epidemic.

The national department of education has set guidelines for educators on how to deal with stigma and discrimination in the classroom. The government has distributed the guidelines to over 30,000 public schools across the country.

"Most schools have taken them on board in good spirit," said Brennand Smith, HIV/AIDS coordinator in the department of education.

But silence and denial around the epidemic is making it difficult to implement the guidelines.

"There is still a conspiracy of silence. They call it witchcraft, TB, anything but AIDS," Noreen Anderson of a
KwaZulu-Natal based advocacy NGO, the Children Rights Centre, told PlusNews.

The centre often receives reports of high school pupils who drop out of class after testing positive at voluntary counselling and testing centers.

There is an urgent need for trained staff to help students overcome the silence, she added.

"HIV-positive learners don't come out because of fear. We have not yet created a supportive environment enabling them to do this," said Sophia Ngcobo, HIV/AIDS coordinator in the
KwaZulu-Natal province's education department.

Ngcobo's task is to ensure that all national HIV/AIDS policies are implemented throughout
KwaZulu-Natal, the country's worst affected province. With up to 75,000 teachers, this is no mean feat.

"Senior management is behind the process. The problem is the manpower to make sure it happens. This is a complicated thing – after all we are trying to change mindsets," she noted.

While the authorities are still figuring out how to address the problem, stigma is taking its toll on teachers.

"Teachers who have disclosed their status have generally been on the receiving end of harsh and unsympathetic attitudes. This has placed them under a lot of stress," Edwin Pillay deputy president of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU), told PlusNews.

Apart from the normal psychological and social concerns they handle when dealing with children, "they are now saddled with this," he added.

SADTU has been involved in settling disputes between HIV-positive teachers and schools, and now offers protection for members who want to disclose their status. "In one particular case when a teacher disclosed her status, she was victimised and eventually dismissed on the principals’ recommendation," Pillay said.

The teacher approached the union and was eventually reinstated. Even then, fellow staff members and students harassed her.

Pillay is, however, optimistic that this will change.

"As professionals [teachers], we have come to understand that AIDS is a serious issue. Much of this hostility stems from ignorance ... when we understand what the disease really is, then the stigma will wane," he believes.

For Ngcobo and other education authorities, this is only the beginning.

"We have done all the talking we can do on the matter, the legislations and policies are there. Hopefully from next year, we will gradually see them working at the school level," she added.