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South Africa has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The first cases arrived in the country in March 2020. Zenzele Sangweni, Factory Director at Unilever’s Boksburg manufacturing site in South Africa, recalls the early days of Covid.
“We got information that the Covid-19 virus was in South Africa,” he says. Then, just before the Easter break, Unilever had its first case of Covid in South Africa when an employee fell ill and had to be taken to an intensive care unit. The Boksburg area, which lies close to the international airport in Johannesburg, was deemed a Covid hotspot and anxieties began to build up. By Easter, several more positive cases had emerged at the factory.
“There was a lot of fear – you could actually feel the tension,” says Zenzele. “But there was a stigma around Covid. My team did not want to talk about it.” A culture of concealment, however, could only make matters worse.
Zenzele had two clear tasks ahead of him. One was to introduce openness and transparency around the new virus. The other was to put in place firm transmission-prevention measures.
A decision was swiftly made to halt factory operations early ahead of the Easter break. All 700 employees and contractors were tested on-site by the Department of Health over the Easter weekend. In the workforce, 42 employees tested positive and care was organised. Nearly 400 contacts were identified and quarantined.
Zenzele led the way in instilling calm, not only among employees but also among the government Departments of Health and Labour, the media who had reported the high number of cases in Boksburg, the local community and neighbouring factories.
On the principle that honesty is the best policy, he was open about developments in his own family. “Taking the initiative, as soon as I heard that within my family there was someone who had tested positive, I shared the story,” he says. “I encouraged my team to talk about it.” His openness about the virus helped turn the mood around: morale improved and the fears of employees dissipated.
Safety on the factory floor
In parallel, safety measures were implemented. The factory was zoned to reduce the risk of infection and Covid-prevention training was introduced. Zenzele and his team anticipated where the risks might lie and devised a mitigation response. When a few cases of Covid occurred in the neighbouring Khanyisa factory, full safety measures were already in place, and the number of cases was kept low.
“We have averted a major catastrophe through the power of working together and pivoting around the challenges that have been hitting us month on month,” he concludes. “We have protected our people, we have made our products available to South Africans to fight the virus at home, we have protected jobs and led in a crisis.”