Kimberly Vrudny

Treatment Action Campaign

In AIDS Denialism, HIV/AIDS, Non-profits / NGOs, South Africa on August 10, 2010 at 2:00 am

The deaths of two men in South Africa quickened the founding of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). Simon Nkoli, an anti-apartheid and gay rights activist, died from AIDS even when ARVs were available to wealthy South Africans. Shortly after Nkoli’s death, Gugu Dlamini was murdered due to his HIV-positive activism. In response, on International Human Rights Day (December 10) 1998, Zackie Achmat and ten other activists launched TAC, a South African AIDS activist organization that uses direct action techniques borrowed from South African trade union and anti-apartheid movements in order to achieve its aims. So far, the organization has been enormously successful—though not without nail biting suspense as each goal is achieved. TAC has been credited with South Africa’s implementation of a country-wide mother-to-child transmission prevention program, as well as forcing the reluctant South African government under its former President, Thabo Mbeki, to make ARVs widely available to South Africans.

The group’s methods are memorable, which perhaps explains their effectiveness. Very early on, members of the group (positive and negative alike) fought AIDS stigma by wearing HIV-positive t-shirts. Recognizing the vast inequities in access to pharmaceuticals, Achmat pledged not to take ARVs until all South Africans could obtain them. As Achmat grew weaker, TAC was instrumental in ensuring that generic medicines would be made available in South Africa at an affordable price. However, when the government blocked their roll-out, TAC staged a thousands-strong march in 2003 to pressure the government to make ARVs widely accessible. Building upon the energy from the march, TAC began a civil disobedience campaign in March 2003, and distributed unlawfully acquired drugs to its members, ceasing its activity when it received word that there was some progress in Parliament. Only then, when Nelson Mandela himself, in unison with members of TAC, pleaded with Achmat to take the drugs did he relent, having grown very weak in the meantime. In the autumn of 2003, the Cabinet overruled the President, and voted to begin a roll-out of antiretroviral access through the country’s still poorly developed system of public clinics.

Despite this maneuver, Mbeki continued to endorse the denialist position, as did South Africa’s minister of Health, Manti Tshabalala-Msimang. She became a target of TAC’s activism. She was removed as Health Minister in 2008, after President Mbeki left office. Access to antiretroviral therapy is now an official policy of the South African government. However, TAC continues to protest and file lawsuits to influence the speed of the rollout.

With its vision of a “unified quality health care system which provides equal access to HIV prevention and treatment services for all people,” and its mission to “ensure that every person living with HIV has access to quality comprehensive prevention and treatment services to live a healthy life,” TAC “has become the leading civil society force behind comprehensive health care services for people living with HIV & AIDS in South Africa.”

For its efforts, TAC has received worldwide acclaim including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2004. Please support its work, if you are able.

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