The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) celebrated 20 years of existence by leading a symbolic march to the Constitutional Court to thank it for what it has done for people living with HIV. News24 quotes general secretary Anele Yawa as saying they wanted to thank the apex court, saying “we have 4.4m people on antiretrovirals (ARVs) due to this court and we are coming to say thank you for upholding the Constitution”.
The report says the TAC began its birthday celebrations with an all-night vigil at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The night vigil recognised and remembered comrades, including hundreds of TAC activists who died while the movement fought for better healthcare services.
The TAC’s Leonorah Mathe said the country now had the world’s largest HIV treatment programme. She said the programme had probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But Mathe added: “The harsh reality is that our struggle for dignity and quality healthcare for all is still far from over. A movement of principled, politically savvy, well-informed, rights aware users of the public healthcare system is needed more than ever. TAC is still that movement.”
The TAC had seen many victories in the courts, clinics, as well as politics, over the years and had educated thousands of people about the science and treatment of HIV, Mathe said. “The TAC has a waged a struggle against pharmaceutical giants profiteering from lifesaving medicines, the movement mobilised against the denialism of former president (Thabo) Mbeki to afford lifesaving treatment to people, while enjoying the support of the late former president Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among many others.”
“It is not a coincidence that 10 December is also international Human Rights Day, as well as the day that South Africa’s pioneering and pro-poor Constitution was signed by former president Nelson Mandela,” Mathe said.
The deep-rooted ailments of South Africa’s public health system dominated the TAC’s 20th anniversary celebration, says a Daily Maverick report. The event noted the positive work done so far in the battle to advocate for the improvement of the country’s inadequate health system but lamented the continuing under-supply of antiretrovirals and inadequate TB treatment.
TAC chair Sibongile Tshabalala said that as the year drew to a close the organisation was already positioning itself for 2019. She said much focus would be on the provinces and renewal of the organisation’s activism so that it could continue its good work.
Tshabalala said the TAC’s primary duty remains – to monitor clinics and hospitals and ensure that patients, especially HIV and TB patients, have access to medication. She said they would intensify efforts to monitor antiretroviral stockouts which, she said, was a major hurdle in the fight against HIV and other diseases.
Tshabalala said as much as Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi was expected to pursue the National Health Insurance (NHI) plan, she was concerned that the TAC had, up to now, not laid its hands on a report about how the pilot projects went. “This makes us uncertain and it also makes it difficult for us to track the NHI plan,” she said.
Tshabalala said the organisation was also aware that elections are around the corner. The TAC was working on its manifesto, to be shared with all political parties, in an effort to hold the health department accountable. “We want to hold public officials to account, especially with regard to health matters affecting poor people”.
Challenges persist, and top of the list is continuing stockout of antiretroviral treatment. Tshabalala is quoted in the report as saying many areas frequently experienced stockouts, which posed a great danger to people infected with HIV. And increasingly problematic was that second- and third-line ARV regiment stockouts have become more common. Tshabalala said governments’ own system of monitoring stockouts was dysfunctional and often did not pick them up.
Tshabalala added that while they were encouraged by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call for 2m people to be tested for HIV, the TAC was concerned that the government was not making plans to better monitor treatment programmes – especially stockouts. “We are saying more people should be tested, but those who are infected should be brought into a properly functional treatment programme, otherwise we’d be bringing them to die.”
Monday’s anniversary was acknowledged by several other organisations and non-government organisations.
The report says the South African Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi paid tribute to all fallen aids activists. Vavi said he had first-hand experience of people dying in the country’s health centres. “I was appalled at the neglect of dying poor people,” he said. “While we fight inequality we must remember always the battle to access medication,” Vavi said. “We need new men and women to champion sustainable access to medication and better care in our clinics and hospitals.”
In charting its way forward, the organisation said it would need the help of all stakeholders and all South Africans. It said as it approached the next 20 years it would commit to reviving a culture of teaching people about the country’s constitutional rights.
“Today is International Human Rights Day. It is a fitting day for the TAC to renew its commitment and pledge to achieve social justice. Our demand to the government, to the courts, and those with economic power in our country is that we want all our constitutional rights,” the report said the statement read. “We want a country that honours its commitment to social justice and equality in deeds and not just words. And we will fight for it.”
The TAC says there is still a long way to go in the fight against HIV/Aids. Epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Karim said in a report in The Times that the country had achieved much in terms of reducing transmission to babies and getting people to take their treatment, but there were still a number of challenges. “We have about 4.5m people on treatment but we have to keep reminding ourselves that South Africa is home to one in five new infections that are taking place each day globally,” she said.
While the 2002 Constitutional Court ruling in which the government was ordered to provide anti-retroviral treatment to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child may have been a victory, Karim said accessibility, especially for those in rural areas, was an issue which required many stakeholders to work together. “One of the biggest challenges we have today is to reach those who are unable to access services, who are scared to have an HIV test and take the treatment that could mean the difference between life and death.
“We have about 1,000 infections taking place each day in SA. We cannot say we have turned the tide, and that’s what we need to keep reminding ourselves. Our battle against HIV is far from over,” said Karim.
“Today is international Human Rights Day, but our human rights continue to be violated daily and there is no one that seems able to own up to that problem,” the report quotes Vovo Konyela, TAC national deputy secretary as saying. “At the inception of the organisation, we were advocating for access to treatment. Today it’s no longer just about access, but it’s about maintaining what we have and even improving on that,” she said.
She revealed that experience and data which they had collected across different hospitals and health facilities showed that people did not have access to quality services. “At national level we are experiencing denial in terms of acknowledgement that these problems exist but a political strategy is what we are not getting. “So, we are here today to add on the list of the rights that are engraved on the doors, that our experiences are not different from what the government must be providing,” said Konyela.
Speaking about the organisation’s battlefield for 2019, Konyela said, “We will use the upcoming years to prioritise the health system because it needs to be strengthened, it needs to be improved. It needs to be given priority.”