Committed to the cause of fighting HIV/AIDS
Bongani Khumalo responds well to causes. From the South African Council of Churches, the Red Cross, the South African National Men’s Forum which he founded, “to inculcate responsible behaviour among men”, to Deputy Chief Executive at Eskom where he was responsible for restructuring and transformation, Bongani Khumalo is a committed to causes.
Most recently, and the task that presents possibly the biggest challenge to date, Khumalo has been appointed to lead a new anti-HIV/AIDS and rural development directorate in the office of the President.
“I’m inclined to respond,” he replies, when asked what drives him. “I can’t pretend not to be aware. The challenges get to me. I can’t just pass the buck. I’m a citizen and a patriot.
“I was brought up in the service environment,” he says. In the mid-1970s he was a youth leader and media educator in the Methodist Church’s education and youth department and served as Communications Officer for the South African Council of Churches from 1979 to1982.
A stint in advertising lasted just three years before he found himself back in the philanthropic world, working for the League of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in South Africa and Geneva.
Khumalo is softly spoken, almost deferential, in his initial greeting, but once the conversation shifts to the issues facing our society, there’s a passion and intensity that infuses his speech. His new position in the president’s office is an opportunity he relishes.
“My responsibility will be to co-ordinate the national effort against HIV/AIDS and to create an environment for individuals and organisations to wage their struggle against the disease in a co-ordinated manner,” he says.
“The assignment is to integrate sustainable rural development in South Africa with the fight against AIDS. There are many important initiatives and I see a lot of value in running them together. My role will be to do the work but also to cause work to be done. We need to ensure collaboration and synergy to achieve our objective.”
In recent years, Khumalo has been one of the more prominent voices in the business community calling for awareness and action to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS
He is the business representative on the South African National AIDS Council as well as a member of the South African Business Council on HIV/AIDS. He was also one of the leading figures in the establishment of the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) ‘ and it is surely no coincidence that Eskom invested the same amount as government (R6 million) in the project while Khumalo was a member of the Eskom management board
In a society which has been notoriously slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Khumalo is something of an exception.
“My background is in the social environment, the ecumenical and humanitarian environment. These contributed to my outlook on life ‘ it’s a people-based orientation. People are the soul of every business ‘ be they the employees or the customers. It is foolhardy not to recognise the strategic importance of the challenge that HIV/AIDS presents. It’s good to see that the business community is finally waking up.”
Khumalo became aware of the dangers posed by HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s while working with the International Red Cross.
“It was my work with the International Red Cross ‘ especially the American and Swedish movements. ‘ that sensitised me about HIV/AIDS. In South Africa. Dr Ruben Sher and I were the first to produce anti-AIDS stickers in 1986, which caused me quite a lot of grief with the Red Cross leadership here.
“It was considered embarrassing to embark on a programme to do with sex and promiscuity. There was such prejudice that it was almost counter productive.”
Khumalo believes that South African society has moved beyond those early knee-jerk days, but there’s still a long way to go.
“We have these inhibitions ‘ from culture, the human response and different personalities, but we have moved a long way. Awareness has gone up and we’re beginning to see signs of behaviour modification, but the subject still doesn’t get the treatment it should be getting.”
Khumalo is determinedly optimistic about the vaccine initiative. “We must search for the cure. Our target should be 2004, although the scientists are saying 2006. By the end of this decade we must be able to contain the disease.”
And what if such deadlines are unrealistic? Khumalo won’t entertain delays. “Either we win or we’re vanquished. It’s a matter of survival, it’s a war of stealth, we must beat this micro-enemy.”
At the level of compassion and commitment, Khumalo is indefatigable. He also seems to have boundless energy. What does he do to relax? “I don’t relax. I’m a true Virgo. My mind outpaces my physical side.
“You remember your bible?” he says, harking back to his church roots, “I’m like Joshua at the battle of Jericho, I will go on until the work is done.” ‘ Health-e News Service.