Minister: SAfrica must use sport for social issues

Jun 12, 2010 - 7:09 AM By STUART CONDIE AP Sports Writer

JOHANNESBURG(AP) -- South Africa's health minister says the country must continue to use sports to highlight social issues long after the World Cup.

Many commentators have expressed concern that the legacy of the World Cup will be limited to stadiums and roads, but Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi said the biggest benefit will be a change in public attitude toward health care in a country with 0.72 percent of the world population but 17 percent of deaths attributed to AIDS.

The success of the World Cup as a vehicle to increase awareness of AIDS and tuberculosis showed that soccer is particularly useful in connecting with a population that has historically been hard to reach, Motsoaledi said.

"It's up to us in South Africa. This momentum must not be lost," he said. "People want the issue of testing and knowing about your health to be something that must happen in every day life and this has helped us to remove the stigma."

Mobile AIDS- and HIV-testing stations have been situated at matches in the buildup to the monthlong tournament, and soccer balls bearing tips on how to recognize and prevent TB have been distributed to thousands of children.

"Since the beginning of World Cup fever around the country, it's been very easy to use sports for other social issues, health-related issues," Motsoaledi said. "We gave the soccer balls to the kids and they loved it. It was very exciting and they learned very quickly.

"They loved it and it spread the message."

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million people, has an estimated 5.7 million infected with HIV, more than any other country. After years of official denial and delay, the government last year embarked on an anti-AIDS drive, vowing to halve new infections and ensure that 80 percent of those who need them have access to AIDS drugs by 2011.

Mammuso Makhanya, who helps administer the mobile testing tents, said that each test takes about 15 minutes and each nurse on duty deals with a maximum of 15 visitors per shift.

With 10 percent of all tests coming up positive, she said it was too emotionally draining for nurses to test more.

"There are more people willing to test than we were able to test," Makhanya said. "People associate clinics with unwellness and sickness but at a football match, it's so normal. It's just one of the activities.

"In three years, we've never had drama, people wanting to kill themselves, to shoot themselves or jump off a cliff. That can be attributed to the good counseling."

And there are happy moments along the way.

"There was this young person and he had just been tested and he didn't know us but he was leaping about and shouting, 'I'm negative! I'm negative!"' she added. "He surprised himself."

And the World Cup has opened other opportunities to children growing up in townships.

While Nike's fierce sports equipment rival Adidas is an official World Cup sponsor, the American company is garnering publicity by selling red laces to raise awareness of AIDS and HIV. It has also paid for the building of a training complex in Soweto open to local children.

The center, which will be maintained after the World Cup by the South African soccer association and the city of Johannesburg, is equipped with coaches teaching life skills as well as soccer ones.

"It's one of the ways to connect with youth," Nike president and chief executive Mark Parker said. "It helps to develop character off the field. It's about training and setting goals and developing self confidence. Those are things that carry over into everyday life."

Nike will not say how much it paid to build the floodlit center, which includes two half-size training pitches and is adorned with motivational slogans from the likes of Eric Cantona and Wayne Rooney, but its opening was greeted enthusiastically by Motsoaledi.

"This brings youngsters from the townships away from alcohol, away from drugs," Motsoaledi said. "They might learn to be soccer stars but they also learn life skills and hopefully they become a free generation."

Former South Africa forward Shaun Bartlett said that such facilities, whether privately or publicly funded, could help his country regain the status it enjoyed in 1996 - when it was African champion.

"We have the talent to compete but we need to nurture that talent and one day we hopefully challenge the likes of Brazil," Bartlett said.

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