Political Mobilisation against HIV in South Africa 1 March 2003
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Jack P Lewis,
Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Film and New Media at the University of Cape Town
IFNM, Betram Place, Hiddingh Hall Campus, UCT, Cape Town, South Africa

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Re: Political Mobilisation against HIV in South Africa

In response to Fassin and Schneider - I would like to submit the this report by Ralph Berold on the protest march supported by 20 000 people organised by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) at the opennig of Parrliament on the 14th February 2003. The article beautifully captures the nature of the TAC, a movement which is seen by many as a critical force for breaking the logjam in AIDS policy.

The TAC has contributed mightily to mobilizing domestic and international opinion to create access to life saving medicine. There can be no doubt highy active anti-retorival treatment (HAART)makes a huge difference to the ability of particularly men to be open about their HIV status. This opponness is the critical ingredient for encouraging safer sexual practice and a lower rate of new infections. Proper treatment of opportunistic infections **and** HAART **combined** with strong social mobilisation as referenced by the politics of the TAC, has shown that it can provide the crucial missing link in effective HIV prevention. This is what we mean when we say that treatment and prevention "are two sides of the same coin". This "combination therapy" - the combination of effective clinical management and a geneuine commitment to the broader social needs of poor people - creates an environment in which men who otherwise might not care about the possibiilty that they may be causing new HIV infections, to improve their health status, take responsibility for their actions and do everything in their power to ensure they do not infect others. This is the experience of thousands of people who have become active in the TAC. The introduction of widespread availability of HAART through the public health system and continued social mobilisation is the best prescription we have to bring down the rate of new infections and reduce mortality in the HIV epidemic in South Africa.

Jack Lewis
Institute of Film and New Media
University of Cape Town


Get up stand up!

I wasn't sure whether I would go to the march for HIV treatment,organised by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) at the opening of Parliament. The thought of the 36 hour train journey, only 12 hours in Cape Town and then another 36 hours back, had something to do with it.

But I realised last week that this was an important journey for me. I had become passionate about the issues. I scan the papers and email for news on changes in HIV/AIDS policy. It is time for government to take care of some of its 4 to 5 million citizens who are living with HIV. This must be shown not in empty promises and policies, but in practical terms, through a better public health system and universal access to life saving medicines. These changes have been proposed in a document which has been under discussion for the last three months at NEDLAC.

"Don't go there and insult our President" one comrade said. I explained that TAC was not trying to insult or take over our government. We are open about our motives - We want government and organised business to sign the framework agreement that have been negotiating. Let us stop fighting and move forward on this issue. Together, as South Africans we are facing one big challenge.

We left at 9pm on Wednesday night from Park Station. About 600 activists from Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KZN and Limpopo province boarded the train and began singing. The songs did not stop for three days. On Thursday we ran workshops in the dining car. We looked after people that were on TB treatment. Logistics such as catering for 600 through one narrow passage was a nightmare. But people were patient and efficient and there was an air of respect, a partnership amongst strangers.

I met a policeman who had disclosed his status and was an active HIV role model and educator. I met counsellors, toyi-toyi boys, nurses, old people, students, researchers and journalists on the train - each with a common purpose. We stopped at Beaufort West in the afternoon. Staggered into an air conditioned Wimpy for a coke and to our delight and surprise we found an oasis in this dusty town - a deep blue public swimming pool. We swam in our clothes.

Friday morning we hit Cape Town station. In the light rain we gathered and were issued our "HIV positive" T-shirts. 600 people walked to St George's cathedral distributing pamphlets to people on the streets. At the former church of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we ate breakfast and met up with our Cape Town compatriots. Six of us split the scene, with some hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin. We roamed the Company Gardens, past the back of Parliament, Tuynhuis - the official residence of the President, past the National Gallery. We were allowed into the National Museum for free where we saw the massive bones of whales and million year old rocks and crystals.

The six of us then made our way to the start of the march down Adderly Street, where the presidential guard stood at attention, dressed in full colours. Clad in our "loud" T-shirts we passed them handing out flyers to the growing crowd. When we reached the TAC crowd, the president and his armoured BMWs drove past. TAC activists lining the streets. Our marshals, identified in red T-shirts kept the crowd from pushing forward to meet the President's motorcade. Anxious police officers.

The rally started at about 12:30. Amampondo hammered out some beautiful melodic rhythms on their marimbas. A flatbed truck served as a stage for speakers and a sound system. Patricia de Lille was one of the first to speak. She said that today she had left Parliament to march with TAC. She reported that the President, in his "state of the nation speech", talked about the US and Iraq for 20 minutes and just mentioned HIV/AIDS in passing, not even by name. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane did not mince his words - "they say that we do not have money for antiretroviral drugs, yet we can pay R60 billion rand for arms!". Where are our priorities?

Then about 20 000 people stood up and arranged themselves in legions -groups in which they would march up Adderley Street. First the people living openly with HIV and AIDS. Then the religious and political leaders. Then the unions. Gays and lesbians. Students. NGOs and community based organisations. Each activist knew why they were there. "HIV treatment for all". We sang, shouted, toyi-toyed, clapped hands and moved forward. Shop workers came to their doors to give their support. Pedestrians were swept into the tide of our wave. I looked up the street and as far as I could see were thousands of people. The power of our bodies and our determination.

In front of Parliament we stopped. A mass meeting at the gates of power. TAC chairperson Zackie Achmat told us how the great rivers of Africa were not big enough to hold our tears, our grief of loved ones lost or dying. He said that we needed to move into a new era, where the people of this country will be cared for, and we will all be afforded the dignity and rights that we deserve. Comrade Willie Madisha, president of COSATU, reminded us that we had spent six months negotiating this deal. Representatives from government, business, labour and the community had come to a consensus and had drafted a framework agreement for a treatment plan. This was meant to be signed on the 1st December. It has not yet been signed. The President and minister continue to deny that it is worth anything.

Each day over 1000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses. Each day without good doctors, nurses and medicines, means another 1000 die. That is 7000 a week, and over 28 000 a month, 300 000 per year, until more than 5 million South Africans will die. Mr President - we plea you, we ask you, we demand of you, to declare a national emergency and to agree to a national HIV/AIDS treatment plan!

By Ralph Berold, February 2003

Competing interests:   None declared