In the beginning  there was the TAC

In the beginning there was the TAC

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NSP Review COMMENT

16 years ago Khayelitsha was TAC’s first branch. Today there are over 60 branches in Khayelitsha alone and more than 250 across the country! TAC branches are composed of people with HIV and TB, users of the health system, intimately aware of how it works or doesn’t. In Khayelitsha over the years TAC has worked with health professionals and Doctors without Borders in particular to introduce programmes for Prevention of Mother-to-Child transmission, then antiretroviral treatment; it has distributed millions of condoms leading to a decline in Sexually Transmitted Infections. Now it has evolved into an organisation which whilst keeping its focus on HIV is looked to by the community to address many other challenges in the health system, most recently the problem of neo-natal mortality, disability and substance abuse.

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It takes a special kind of person to work for the Treatment Action Campaign; in fact, one probably has to be a little crazy! There are no office hours, and often it seems that ‘after hours’, are the only hours. You can never not answer the phone, and when you do, you have to have a solution. And, if you work for TAC Khayelitsha, in the third biggest township in the country, you represent the social justice movement’s oldest and most established branch.

The Khayelitsha TAC office doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s a plain yellow-brick building sandwiched between a cell phone shop and a furniture shop at the end of the bustling and noisy Nonqubelo Taxi Rank. Like this building, the organisation itself is an unassuming structure. It showed up one day, facilitated invaluable change, without ever changing itself, and never broke down. Almost 17 Years ago, the TAC decided that enough was enough. A few brave citizens took a stand against large pharmaceutical companies, challenged a government, changed the narrative of HIV/AIDS, and saved millions of lives. And every day, they do it again.

South Africa has the largest ARV programme in the world, with over three million people accessing the life-saving drugs. But only a few people can tell you what it was like to see people dying like flies in the early 90s before the programme was introduced. Only a few people can tell you what it was like to be the first to speak out about HIV/AIDS at a time where nobody wanted to speak out.

When brave and resolute TAC volunteers in the Western Cape took to the streets in HIV-positive T-shirts 17 years ago, they had no way of knowing that, in time, they would be present in medical facilities, schools, homes and community centres, encouraging people to take treatment.

It became the duty of ordinary citizens who had seen loved ones die, who themselves were dying, to fight for everyone who was infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. And what a battle it was – fought on ideological, political and socio-economic fronts, and changing South Africa for the better.

There are now hundreds of small community TAC branches all over the country, focused on making the South Africa health system work for and with its citizens. This a great achievement, but it is good to take a moment to reflect, to see where we came from, what we changed, who we changed, and why we changed things.

Over the years, the TAC has become more than just an organisation that deals with ‘sick people’. It has become a cornerstone for many communities, providing invaluable assistance to the marginalised.

The following pieces were collated from the TAC in the Western Cape. These individual testimonies, and stories of working partnerships are just a snippet of the work done by TAC. And when hundreds of voices echo in the streets, and across the country, singing ‘Sihamba noTAC thina’, it is a sincere commitment to moving forward towards a better South Africa for all.

FEATURE AND IMAGES BY NOMATTER NDEBELE, NSP REVIEW