Ireland has a duty to help South Africa

Comment: The people of South Africa have much to be proud of after 12 years of full democracy since the end of apartheid

Comment: The people of South Africa have much to be proud of after 12 years of full democracy since the end of apartheid. The country generates about 25 per cent of the African continent's gross domestic product (GDP) and over 50 per cent of the continent's electricity.

The Johannesburg stock exchange is, by capitalisation, among the top 20 in the world. Economic growth has been steady at about 4.5 per cent to 5 per cent a year, driven by construction and domestic demand.

South Africa will host the 2010 soccer world cup, further fuelling construction investment as well as being an obvious source of national pride.

According to the International Monetary Fund, South Africa's GDP has risen from $328 billion to $570 billion since 1994 and today has a GDP/capita of $12,786 compared to an average of just $2,640 for the entire African continent.


The Irish have had a long interest in South Africa. There were Irish in the former British administration and in the professional classes such as lawyers and doctors. There are Irish place names such as Donnybrook and Belfast.

Enterprise, Trade and Employment Minister Micheál Martin and Enterprise Ireland's Frank Ryan recently returned from a trade mission to South Africa, where there are apparently 100 Irish companies doing business with an annual value exceeding €400 million. Irish commercial property interests in South Africa include Howard Holdings and BDO Xavier Simpson.Irish private property interests are soaring, with outstanding vacation villas extremely reasonably priced by Irish standards, underwritten by a 21 per cent increase in house prices in 2005, low-cost flights and just a single hour time zone difference that negates jet lag.

Visiting South Africa, one can appreciate the Irish interest. There is wonderful weather; lush and beautiful scenery; an excellent road infrastructure superior to anything here; gorgeous food and wonderful wine, at prices that would make any Irish restaurant owner crimson with shame; and with friendly and English-speaking hosts.

It is difficult to believe that South Africa has immense challenges.

In my role as chairman of Unicef Ireland, I recently visited some of Unicef's various HIV/Aids programmes in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province. KZN borders the Indian Ocean and is home to about 20 per cent of South Africa's 42 million people.

One of the most harrowing aspects of HIV/Aids is the number of households headed by a young person or child under the age of 18 who is looking after his or her siblings, with no parents or extended family alive to help. We visited one such family, with a 17-year-old and her four siblings, living in a small single room shack in the Mselene rural district north of Durban. Their mother and eight-year-old brother had died from HIV/Aids within the past two months.

The family is assisted by a volunteer community-based initiative, built from otherwise unemployed community workers (mostly women).

Each care worker helps to ensure that children have access to the relevant social grants (foster care and child support) and food parcels, smoothes their way in school and teaches the older children how to run a household.

In practice, grant applications can be difficult: the local social services are wary of illegal immigrants from neighbouring states attracted to the relative wealth of South Africa.

Birth certificates and documentation are not always available to the bereaved children, and the affidavit procedures and associated bureaucracy are intimidating. We also learned that while local annual school fees are 300 rand (about €30), the compulsory uniform costs about 500 rand.

South Africa now has the world's largest and most successful Anti-Retroviral (ARV) drug programme, which slows the onset of HIV/Aids for about 250,000 people, mainly via both publicly funded hospitals and clinics. UK data provides hope that ARV treatment, if timely, can prolong life expectancy to 60-plus, and thus a reasonably normal life can be led, albeit with a daily tablet and a six-monthly blood test.

Nevertheless, there are an estimated 700,000 in South Africa who are infected and require ARV treatment, out of an estimated 5.5 million people - more than 10 per cent of the population. Transportation costs to and from clinics and hospitals remains an issue for many, and thus there are several initiatives to push availability of HIV/Aids testing and ARV drugs deep out into the community, under appropriate professional supervision. Life expectancy in South Africa has fallen from 63 in 1991 to under 50 today.

However, South Africa has at last proudly taken its place among the fully democratic nations.

Its government has shown leadership, first under Nelson Mandela and now under Thabo Mbeki, in transforming from the apartheid era, and especially with its truth and reconciliation process. Its economy is strong and should be a model for the rest of the African continent. Nevertheless, its civil structures remain immature and fragile, particularly at the local level.

There is a critical shortage of professionals, both medical staff and engineers, available for public projects as better prospects and less stress from the private sector and internationally arise. Unemployment rates are very high, HIV/Aids remains a social stigma and violence remains common.

With our own, sometimes ostentatious affluence and our acknowledged entrepreneurial abilities, I believe that we in Ireland could do much more to open our eyes and see beyond the immediate impression of South Africa - and help.

The corporate sector has a role to play in the society in which it makes its living. Corporate responsibility is vital in building an empowered global environment within which businesses can be successful and also benefit the wider community.

We must all play our part as corporate citizens and make a contribution to building a better world as a direct result of our actions.

Dr Chris Horn is chairman of Unicef Ireland in South Africa. He is also co-founder and vice-chairman of Iona Technologies

Chris Horn

Chris Horn

Chris Horn, a contributor to The Irish Times, was the cofounder, chief executive and chairman of Iona Technologies