This is the hardest part of Mokone’s job ‘ the inability to support people who are poor.
‘How can I help him when I am also hungry?’ asks Mokone after the session. Everyday Mokone faces up to 20 patients a day, helping them to deal with their status, adherence, and emotional issues.
However, the most frustrating part is his inability to alleviate the high levels of poverty amongst those living with HIV and AIDS.
‘Everyday I see people who are hungry, sick, and poor. I refer them to organisations that hand out food parcels. But I know they don’t have food parcels.’
Mokone, who is fondly called ‘Lucky’, is described in glowing terms by other counsellors who say he is a committed and tireless worker who never turns a patient away.
He began working as a youth leader after school but decided to volunteer as a counsellor in 1997 after his brother contracted HIV. ‘I did not see my brother getting any support emotionally and he did not know how to deal with this illness,’ he said.
‘I am supposed to see four to five patients a day but sometimes we see 15 to 20. I am mentally tired.’
Mokone’s commitment to fighting against HIV and AIDS eroded by labour problems facing lay counsellors.
He said currently the provincial departments do not formally employ lay counsellors but give them a stipend each month. ‘We are expected to work for eight hours a day, five days a week.’
Putting on his jacket, Mokone is on his way to a lay counsellors’ meeting to discuss the problems with their stipends. ‘Lay counsellors get paid different in each province. This means we all do not have a set labour structure. They can pay R800 or nothing and we can do nothing about it.’
According to Mokone, the Gauteng health department is aware of the lay counsellors’ grievances but has ignored repeated request for a meeting.
‘We were told by the Gauteng health department that the stipends are paid to NGOs in our area and they have to pay us.’
Nevertheless, organisations tasked with administering the stipends have not received funds from the health department.
Trying to steer the conversation to a more personal note is hard because Mokone is consumed by the injustice of the system.
‘We as counsellors hear a lot about how much money the government is giving to fighting with HIV and AIDS, but we don’t see it.’
‘When we complain to the health department [about not being paid], they do not take us seriously and say they can find counsellors on the street.’
Mokone says the counsellors are the backbone of the country’s psychological and emotional fight against the epidemic but are not acknowledged. ‘We are not formally employed, we have no union and no protection against contracting TB in these clinics,’ he said getting up and walking towards the door.
So why does he do it?
‘I don’t do this job to be famous, or to get rich. I do this job because our people have a low self-esteem. I do it because I have to.’
He said most of the problems facing people living with HIV and AIDS are about education and understanding how they can empower themselves.
Walking out of the clinic into the street, the young man looks back and smiles. ‘Eish! We not going to give up, we also need to be paid for what we do. If we are meant to help others, then we must be given the power and salaries to do this.’