New Emergency, New urgency

By Nomatter Ndebele

Following a 10 000-strong activist march on the first day of the International AIDS conference in Durban, the Treatment Action Campaign and SECTION27 hosted a press conference to outline the strategy of the activist groups beyond the conference.

SECTION27 executive director Mark Heywood said: “The Minister of Health said yesterday that his department is already working on our demands for a comprehensive plan to provide all people living with HIV in South Africa with treatment. We welcome this. But this is an easy commitment to make. We will only believe it when we see that commitment translating into real change.”

He also called for a more focused campaign to “turn off the tap on new infections”. While great strides have been made in the country, there are still high levels of new infections each day, particularly amongst adolescents and young women. Heywood said it was important to ensure that young children in schools have access to condoms, as well as HIV tests, together with comprehensive sexual education literacy to empower young people to make better and more informed decisions, which will have a direct influence on lowering the rate of new infections.

Stonewalled

Although there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure treatment for all, the activist group continues to be stonewalled by a lack of funding. The budget for the TAC, dropped by 14 million rand this year alone. Putting the group under great pressure. “Cars run on petrol, and we are the petrol, but we need money,” said Heywood. The TAC, will be calling on funders and sponsors to continue to support NGOs in order for lives to be saved.

Alongside funding issues, the Treatment Action Campaign addressed the plight of Community Health Care Workers. They asked for them to be at the forefront of the struggle for treatment for all. Executive director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe made a call for one million health care workers and 200 000 in South Africa. “For 10 years we have been fighting to get this issue heard,” said Violet Kaseke Paralegal at SECTION27.

Although Community Health Care Workers serve as the backbone of the Public Health Care System, they are forced to do so with minimal resources. Many health care workers, work without the basics like gloves and masks which often leads to them dying after contracting communicable diseases from the patients they treat.

“For the Treatment Action Campaign and SECTION27, this conference cannot be business as usual,” said Heywood. “We are looking for more than just commitment and rhetoric. They are looking for change, not just at AIDS 2016, but beyond that too.”

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The barefoot soldiers of a public health care system that doesn’t seem to care

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