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The long walk to civil disobedience

When my comrades and I disrupted Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s speech at the Health Systems Trust conference last week, a public health official taunted one of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) members by saying: “How did you get HIV anyway?”

We also received an angry letter from a man who feels our demand for treatment is unfair. This article is written for them. It is also written for people like Western Cape African National Congress health spokesperson, Cameron Dugmore, who called us bullies for disrupting the minister.

First, I apologise unconditionally to the minister for referring to her personal appearance during our disruption. Any reference to the personal appearance of an opponent to discredit them is wrong.

It’s also wrong because it undermines the dignity of the protest of thousands of TAC volunteers and allows people who need to curry favour with officials a cover for their lack of courage and morality. It is also no excuse to say that I was angry, because a few minutes before my own anger against indifference became uncontrollable I had told a comrade whose mother had been hospitalised with a CD4 count of 54 and raging tuberculosis that she should use her anger to demonstrate peacefully.

But there are many things I do not apologise for. I do not apologise for holding Tshabalala-Msimang and Minister of Trade and Industry Alec Erwin responsible for thousands of HIV/Aids deaths.

Second, neither the TAC nor I will make any apology for making the minister of health, any politician or bureaucrat feel uncomfortable through a disruption of any meeting, office or event where they may find themselves. Hundreds of premature, painful, awkward, silent and screaming deaths of children, men and women daily are caused by the failure of the government to implement a comprehensive treatment and prevention plan for HIV/Aids.

To Dugmore and the other detractors of our campaign who call us bullies, let me ask: were you at the many lawful marches to Parliament to give memoranda to the minister and the president begging for HIV treatment? Perhaps you did not see our march of about 15 000 people on the South African Parliament asking the government to sign a treatment and prevention plan on February 14? What about our early pickets of Parliament, drug companies and the United States government?

Civil disobedience is action of last resort for us, because exhaustive efforts at engagement have not worked. Let me ask further: did you attend any of more than 10 submissions to various parliamentary portfolio committees begging, cajoling, charming and arguing for HIV treatment? Did you attend any of more than 30 interfaith services held by the TAC and our allies across the country appealing to the conscience of the health minister and the government?

Do you know that we tried quietly to persuade Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, Dr Nono Simelela, Dr Essop Jassat, Dr Ismail Cachalia, Dr Saadiq Kariem, Dr Kammy Chetty, Dr Abe Nkomo and other doctors who are members of the ANC to ensure that the government change its policies or to let their scientific training, their Hippocratic oaths and their consciences allow them to speak the truth?

Maybe you also tried to persuade them that real loyalty to the ANC and the ideals of the Freedom Charter required open criticism after numerous private pleas? Have you reminded the ministers of health and trade and industry that they are undermining the ANC’s traditions of freedom, equality, solidarity and dignity?

Do you remember that the health minister and her supporters in Cabinet really represent the anti-democratic traditions of the former Stalinist states that supported them? Perhaps one should expect people who denied the existence of the Gulag or applauded the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and East Germany by Soviet troops and called the latest Zimbabwean election legitimate to deny the existence of HIV/Aids and the efficacy of antiretrovirals?

Did you attend hundreds of community meetings addressed by TAC volunteers across the country to educate ourselves and our people about HIV, prevention and treatment? Did you help late into the night, in support of the government, to develop a court case against the drug companies to reduce the prices of all medicines including HIV/Aids medicines? Do you remember how the health minister spurned the TAC after the case?

Do you know the anguish of the person who made the poster that said: “Thabo your ideas are toxic”? Were you at the funeral of Queenie Qiza (one of the first TAC volunteers) or did you hear Christopher Moraka choke to death after appealing to Parliament to reduce the prices of medicines?

Maybe, like me, you avoided the funeral of my cousin Farieda because I cannot face the pain of death? Did you feel as encouraged as we were by the Cabinet statement of April 17 2002? Are you as disappointed a year later that so little has been done? Were you there when we illegally imported a good quality generic antifungal drug (Fluconazole) and shamed drug company Pfizer for profiteering?

Maybe you followed the TAC/Congress of South African Trade Unions’s treatment congress where unemployed people, nurses, scientists, cleaners and trade unionists invited the government to develop a treatment plan? Do you remember our meeting with Deputy President Jacob Zuma that led to a promise that a treatment and prevention plan would be developed by the end of February 2003?

Did you miss the word-games played by the government over negotiations at the National Economic and Development Labour Council (Nedlac)? Are you one of the people who phone Nedlac regularly to hear when the government will return to the negotiating table? Or, are you one of the people too busy taking care of someone dying but who have a little pride in your heart when an activist says to the president: “Comrade, you are not listening to our cries. You are denying the cause of our illness. You are not helping us get medicines.”

After countless attempts at talking, public pressure and even a court case to prevent HIV infection from mother-to-child, the government allows the deaths to continue while it plays the caring, right-minded diplomat in Africa and the Middle East. Politeness disguises the moral and legal culpability of these politicians and officials. We believe that the personal crises faced by many of our families, friends, nurses, doctors, colleagues and their children should be turned into discomfort and a crisis for the politicians and bureaucrats who continue to deny our people medicine.

The fact that the health minister is obstructing the departments of health, finance, labour and the deputy president’s office from signing and implementing a treatment and prevention plan costs our society more than 600 lives and many new HIV infections every day.

The government uses Parliament, Cabinet, provincial governments and all its resources including the Government Communication and Information Service, in the person of comrade Joel Netshitenze, or health communications officer, Joanne Collinge, to justify its denial of life-saving medicines to people who need them. It uses these resources to protect the reputation of the minister of health. And you add your voices to their chorus? When will you join reason, passion and anger to win treatment for people living with HIV/Aids and a decent public health system for all?

The TAC will win in this campaign because its members act in good faith. And when we win, we will sit down on any day with the government for as long as it takes to tackle all the difficult problems of HIV/Aids and the health system. These wounds between ourselves and the government will not be healed easily. But they will heal easier than the pain of the millions who are denied life-saving treatment and those who have succumbed to that pain.

Zackie Achmat is the Treatment Action Campaign’s chairperson The ANC was asked to comment and has pledged a response next week.

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