/ 28 April 2007

Campaigner pumps petrol to battle Aids ignorance

For six weeks, Andre van Zijl has been pumping petrol around the clock at a petrol station in the picturesque seaside town of Knysna on South Africa’s south coast.

Why? To raise awareness about HIV/Aids. The 57-year-old Aids campaigner aims to log 1 000 working hours this week in his latest publicity stunt to highlight the devastating scale of the Aids epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, home to 70% of people living with HIV in the world.

”It takes doing something this unusual to draw attention to a problem that many people are tired of hearing. It has nothing to do with me or what I can accomplish as an individual. It is about doing it in a noticeable way so people think twice,” he says.

Van Zijl is no stranger to such public acts, having staged marathon sessions ranging from swimming in the Indian Ocean with dolphins for five days to disco dancing 354 consecutive hours. He also roller-skated about 2 400km from Cape Town to Pretoria and back.

All were designed to draw the attention of people to the Aids crisis in South Africa, one of the most severely affected countries in the world with 5,5-million people living with HIV in a population of 47-million.

He has generated wide publicity, appearing on television networks, making headlines internationally and raising about R11-million for Aids programmes along the way.

Van Zijl was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, which he contracted while working as a flight attendant and having unprotected sex with multiple, concurrent partners around the world. He made it his personal mission to sensitise others about HIV, how it is spread and ways to stop the spread of HIV, which was a little-understood disease at the time.

His call was for people to practise safe sex using condoms; remaining faithful to one sexual partner; staying celibate; or using clean needles. That was 20 years ago.


Today, he is baffled at the prevalence of HIV/Aids in South Africa despite there being more reliable information than ever. He cannot understand why people, facing one of the world’s severest health disasters, refuse to change their behaviour.

According to recent research published in the South African Medical Association Journal, 1 500 people in the country are infected with HIV every day while another 1 000 die of Aids-related illnesses every day.

This year, the South African government announced a new five-year plan to tackle the crisis after years of being accused of a sluggish response that has upset Aids campaigners around the globe.

The roll-out of a national antiretroviral programme, which only began in 2004, has been slow. South African President Thabo Mbeki, deemed an Aids denialist for questioning the link between HIV and Aids, displayed a more serious engagement with the pandemic in his annual State of the Nation address at the beginning of this year.

Since the middle of March, Van Zijl has been working as a 24-hour petrol attendant. Wearing a red golf shift embroidered ”Andre’s World Record” and a beaded Aids-ribbon pin, Van Zijl welcomes a steady stream of cars and taxi minibuses with a cheery ”hello”.

But only a few commuters react with matched enthusiasm. Most seem uninterested in discussing the subject of Aids.

Poor response

Over almost 40 days, Van Zijl has collected a total of about R6 000 in tips and a few donations of clothing and food. He is disappointed by the poor response.

He had hoped to raise public awareness, particularly about the plight of children who have lost one or both parents to Aids-related illnesses. Of the more than 15-million Aids orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, almost 10% or 1,2-million live in South Africa, according to the United Nations.

”Some people have been incredibly kind, but mostly I have seen an incredible indifference,” he said. ”People are just turning off the lights to the Aids pandemic, but we should be afraid of the dark. We have to get rid of this ignorance.”

Van Zijl said his body is beginning to tire. Two years ago, his immunity levels plummeted so low he was forced to start with antiretroviral treatment. Gone are the days when his physical health was good enough to play pool for 220 hours or drink 21 litres of mineral water in one sitting.

Non-stop petrol pumping will be the last of his gruelling stunts. But he will continue to travel South Africa, sponsored by a local hotel chain and bus company, and visit other African nations to deliver talks on Aids.

”I can just hope that people will listen in my lifetime. This is my way of doing my bit.” — Sapa-IPS