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South African AIDS Activist: “Total Failure of Gvt to Lead Coordinated Response to What Has Presented Itself as a Catastrophe for the New Democracy”

StoryAugust 17, 2006
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We speak with Sipho Mthathi, general secretary of the South African AIDS activist organization, Treatment Action Campaign about AIDS in Africa, the effect of U.S. AIDS policies on the global landscape and the significance of Bill Gates in the global fight against AIDS. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour in Toronto, Canada, at the 16th International AIDS Conference. Sipho Mthathi is with us, General Secretary of the South African AIDS activist group called Treatment Action Campaign. Sipho, it’s good to have you back on Democracy Now! Can you talk about the scope of the problem in South Africa?

SIPHO MTHATHI: Well, I mean, I think the problem we continue to face in South Africa is what we call the total failure of government to lead a coordinated national response to what has presented itself as a catastrophe for our new democracy. We currently have 800,000 people who need AIDS treatment. Our country does not have a plan to provide life-saving treatment to those people. On a daily basis, 1,500 new infections take place. Our country does not have a credible plan to prevent new infections. The impact of the epidemic is ravaging communities and households, and our country is not standing up to the crisis of the epidemic. And so we are calling for greater government leadership in dealing with what we call a national crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Sipho, there was an action of your organization, storming one of the tables in the exhibit hall. Can you explain why?

SIPHO MTHATHI: Well, I mean, we stormed the South African exhibition in the exhibition hall, and the reason we did that was twofold. One is we feel that the display of things like garlic and lemon juice and beetroot, which are very visibly displayed in the South African stand, is not only an insult to the pain and suffering of people with AIDS in our country, it is an insult to the crisis that our country faces, and that for the Minister of Health to come to an international platform like this and display such things, I think, undermines our whole country in the eyes of the world, and I think it undermines and insults people with AIDS who are waiting for treatment, proven treatment, today and whom the minister continues to deny access to life-saving treatment, because of her own denialism. And so we stormed the South African booth to demand greater leadership in a decisive action from our government.

But also what has happened and which is also a demonstration of the failures of our country to provide access to people with AIDS is that we had lodged in support of prisoners in a facility called Westville in Durban in South Africa, where 50 prisoners today are known to have CD4 counts less than a hundred. And those people need treatment urgently. And we had to go to court to force the government to provide life-saving treatment to those people, and instead of the government providing the treatment, they have appealed the judgment. And that has led to the death of some of the prisoners. One of the prisoners died last week, because he started treatment too late. And many of them are waiting. And the government does not have a plan to provide treatment to people in prisons in our country, in the same way that it doesn’t have a credible operational plan to provide treatment to the 800,000 people who need it today in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Sipho Mthathi, how do U.S. policies affect South Africa?

SIPHO MTHATHI: Well, U.S. policy affects not only South Africa. It affects particularly all of the developing world. Activists from India have come to the conference, and they have been protesting the influence, particularly of U.S.-based drug companies, who despite the flexibilities of the Doha Declaration in the area of public health and particularly antiretroviral drugs, U.S.-based companies particularly are pressurizing the Indian government to prevent the manufacture of much needed generic versions of particularly second-line drugs, which for many of our countries are critical. And that policy, which is obviously backed by the U.S. government, of, you know, profiteering of U.S.-based companies particularly is affecting people.

We know the history of the U.S. government in putting pressure on countries who have attempted, like Brazil, to exercise their rights and to use the flexibilities of the TRIPS agreement, including the issuing of voluntary licenses, which would allow generic companies to produce the drugs to provide for the greater population in much more affordable ways.

Also, I mean, we’ve also seen activists, particularly from Latin America, lamenting the bilateral pressure that has come through the free trade agreements that the U.S. is pushing, particularly in South America, which is really hindering the power of governments to actually provide particularly treatment and to do the right thing to protect the health of their people.

We also know that, although the rest of the world acknowledges and appreciates the investment made by the U.S. government through PEPFAR, which is on the one hand saving lives, the ideological fundamentals which are being driven through the PEPFAR program, which deny access to services for drug users and harm protection programs for sex workers, and which have the tendency to promote abstinence over comprehensive approaches to HIV prevention, are harming and undermining the very investment that the U.S. government has made through PEPFAR. And those are issues that we would like to bring to the attention of the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: Sipho Mthathi, one of the people who addressed the conference was Bill Gates, of course, founder of Microsoft, talking about how the control has to be given back to women in dealing with AIDS. How does the fact that these two people, Bill and Melinda Gates, have so much money, billions of dollars, often talking about issues in the same way you talk about them, affect the global landscape, as they say they’re going to pour those billions into dealing with issues like AIDS?

SIPHO MTHATHI: Well, our starting point as activists who are here and as people living with HIV is that we appreciate the commitment that has been displayed by philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, and as well as Bill Clinton. And we wish that there were more of those, particularly from the private sector, because we are really aggrieved that the private sector is not adequately coming to the table with the resources that we know it has.

However, we are concerned, and this is a point we have made throughout this conference, that the hiding of the failures of governments to provide the necessary leadership in finding solutions to the global AIDS crisis cannot be hidden by philanthropists who rightfully provide assistance and who come to the table. And we have felt that at times the attention given and the voice given to philanthropists like Gates has tended to shadow the real practical difficulties, which many people in the countries that we come from are struggling with, particularly the failures of government, national governments, to give leadership.

But also, we feel that, you know, these grant announcements have the tendency also to allow the complacency that we have seen — we’ve seen it in our own country in South Africa, and we’ve seen it in other countries — for governments to actually think big about how to address the epidemic, and then to say, you know, to the private sector, “Bring your resources and support us.” But we are concerned that the leadership vacuum, which, you know, governments have allowed is being filled by people who have good intentions and whose commitment we appreciate, but that it has the potential to allow and to, in fact, justify the failure of leaderships or leadership by governments locally.

AMY GOODMAN: Sipho Mthathi, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, General Secretary of the South African AIDS activist group, Treatment Action Campaign, speaking to us from Toronto, Canada, the International AIDS Conference, the 16th, the largest in the world.

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