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GLOBAL DAY OF PROTEST DEMANDS SOUTH AFRICA GOVERNMENT PROVIDE AIDS TREATMENT TO MILLIONS F

by John Riley Tuesday, Apr. 29, 2003 at 10:45 AM
john@healthaction.info

18 ARRESTED IN CAPETOWN TRADE MINISTRY OFFICE TAKE-OVER. AIDS ACTIVISTS DEMONSTRATE AT SOUTH AFRICAN EMBASSY IN WASHINGTON, D.C., Simultaneous actions in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia

(Capetown, South Africa and Washington, D.C.) Just days before South Africa’s Freedom day on April 28th, AIDS activists from the Treatment Action Campaign (T.A.C.) of South Africa kicked-off a global day of protest with a non-violent sit-in. Eighteen activists from the T.A.C. were arrested Thursday afternoon after they took over the Capetown Ministry of Trade and Industry’s office, demanding the government agree to and implement a national HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention plan. In addition they criticized the ministry, headed by Alec Erwin, for failing to bring down the excessive price of AIDS treatments through compulsory licensing and importation of generic AIDS drugs. The global day of protest called for the South African Government to provide antiretroviral drugs, and drugs to fight the opportunistic infections that kill people with HIV/AIDS. The protest was called for by T.A.C., the largest grassroots AIDS activist organization in South Africa and one of the biggest in the world. T.A.C. called upon the South African government to use Freedom Day as an

opportunity to give hope to millions of people by announcing the roll-out of an antiretroviral treatment program.

Also on Thursday in Washington DC, three hundred protesters (mostly African-American or African) marched to the South African embassy, rallied and delivered 600 pairs of shoes, symbolizing the number of preventable deaths each day of people living with HIV/AIDS (PWA) in South Africa. These PWAs die because they have no access to AIDS medicines.

“The South African government must make an irreversible and unequivocal commitment to a public sector antiretroviral program, it must also commit to sign a framework prevention and treatment plan. ” said Amanda Lugg of ACT UP/NY to the deputy ambassador. “But what does the government say? That basic needs such as nutrition must be met first. But without treatment, one quarter of a million South Africans will die of HIV/AIDS this year. For someone with AIDS, isn’t treatment a basic need? Come through President Mbeki, come through for Africa. Prove that antiretroviral treatment can work on the African Continent.”

Deputy Ambassador Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo thanked the crowd for its advocacy on AIDS and responded, “As we all know the South African‘s commitment to fighting this disease is well recorded and well reflected (in) national programs and resources, … that have been committed up to now and promised. Please be assured that this commitment will not change as long as this problem persists.” The deputy ambassador accepted a memo from the protestors and met with them after the demonstration. Protest sponsors included ACT UP New York and Philadelphia, Health GAP, African Services Committee, Africa Action, and Student Global AIDS Campaign.

Asia Russell of ACT UP/Philadelphia disagreed with the deputy ambassador, “I must reassert that the facts are in, for the country of South Africa. The financial analysis have been done. What is missing is commitment from the government deputy ambassador. What is missing is the incontrovertible commitment that, ‘Yes, we will roll out antiretroviral treatment for the public sector’. We (activists) will do everything in our power to force rich countries to subsidize access to treatment. But we will also do everything in our power to demand that governments represent the interests of their people with AIDS and accept that assistance and support access within their own borders. Unless that message is heard and agreed to, we are not in accord.”

The South African government has refused to endorse a national plan for treatment and care, including access to antiretrovirals, despite widespread national support for treating people living with HIV, and widespread acknowledgement of the massive social, public health, and economic damage to the country as a result of untreated HIV disease.

Simultaneous actions occurred in major cities throughout the world, from Nairobi to Amsterdam. In Japan activists delivered 600 cranes, a symbol of hope and longevity, to the South African Embassy. Hundreds of shoes were delivered to embassies or consulates in London, Los Angeles and Milan. Six-hundred red tulips were delivered to South African officials in Amsterdam. In Paris, demonstrators at the South African embassy held wanted posters for South African Ministers Erwin and Tshabalala-Msimang for failure to address the AIDS crisis. (for more details about international actions, contact TAC spokesperson, Vuyani Jacobs: tel: 011 27 73 209 3606, email: vuyani@tac.org.za and go to www.tac.org.za.)

After four years of pressure on their government, TAC activists launched a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience March 20, 2003 because, “Our consciences no longer can allow us to stand by and let people die needlessly while government procrastinates, delays and impedes the development and implementation of an HIV/AIDS Treatment and Prevention plan. We support our Constitution. In fact our civil disobedience actions draw attention to the fact that the government does not respect the right to life, dignity, equality and health care access of children, men and women who live with HIV/AIDS” (excerpt from TAC’s submission to the South African Human Rights Commission, April 1 2003).

The vast majority of people in South Africa have no access to the medicines that have transformed AIDS in wealthy countries into something approaching a chronic, manageable illness. The South African government’s own research has confirmed that HIV is the leading cause of death among women between the ages of 15 and 39, of maternal mortality, and is a major factor exacerbating poverty.

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