AIDS: The New Apartheid

By Gevisser, Mark | The Nation, May 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

AIDS: The New Apartheid


Gevisser, Mark, The Nation


"Phanzi, Pfizer, Phanzi!" "Get out, Pfizer, go!" At rallies they sing the old liberation songs, replacing the names of apartheid leaders with those of multinational pharmaceutical companies. On the streets they chant demands, no longer for the vote or a living wage or freedom, but for fluconazole and cotrimoxazole and nevirapine. Their leaders and organizers might well be human rights lawyers and healthcare professionals, but most of the foot soldiers of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)--which has spearheaded the campaign for affordable medicine for HIV-related illnesses in South Africa--are ordinary South African men and women, HIV-positive but too poor to afford the drugs needed to keep them alive.

For most of us, globalization remains an abstract and troubling concept, but for the TAC's activists the pharmaceutical industry's cynical abuse of international trade agreements to keep its profit margins high has meant that globalization is literally killing them. What makes their activism so compelling is that their battle for access to treatment has brought them up against the consequences of the global economy--and that they appear to be triumphant.

In mid-April, after a three-year fight, thirty-nine multinational pharmaceutical companies agreed to settle a suit against the South African government to prevent it from purchasing brand-name drugs from third parties at the cheapest rates possible. This, Big Pharma had claimed, was in violation of international trade and property agreements the South African government had signed. The withdrawal was brokered directly by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had been asked by the five biggest companies to help them find a way out of what had become a public relations nightmare. Annan called South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose officials drafted a last-minute settlement that committed the country to negotiate with the multinationals before implementing its policy. The victory, however, was the TAC's: Not only had it proved that the suit was unwinnable, it had brilliantly mobilized a broad spectrum of support at home and abroad against the drug companies, which were shamed into the settlement--in effect, an honorable withdrawal.

The icon of this victory, broadcast all over the world, was the image of a large African man in the courtroom popping a bottle of champagne in a circle of jubilant celebrants. This man was Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, South Africa's largest labor federation and the backbone of the "Revolutionary Alliance" that brought the African National Congress to power--and that keeps it there. Surrounding him was a fascinating mix of working-class activists, high-powered lobbyists from international organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam, and ecstatic government officials reliving, for one brief moment, the euphoria of activism.

The TAC has managed to put together the first seriously effective social movement since South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994. The keynote speaker at its first national conference, in March, was Cosatu president Willie Madisha. "There is no urgency from government," he told an audience of 500 delegates from more than 169 organizations, including major religious and healthcare groups. "Sometimes it drags its feet, at other times its HIV/AIDS work is incoherent. Broader social mobilization is essential to engage government constructively."

In 1994 most antiapartheid activists either went into government and became enmeshed in the workings of the new state or set off for the private sector to exercise their newfound freedom and follow their own interests. The result was that the broad-based social movements that brought apartheid to its knees in the 1980s ossified into bureaucracy or withered into nonexistence. The TAC offers a cogent example of the consequences: In the early 1990s, AIDS activists played a major role in the drafting of an exceptional National AIDS Plan, which was adopted by the African National Congress. …

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