Nation Op-Ed Draws Parallels Between Drug Access and Antiapartheid Movements
The fight to obtain greater access to anti-AIDS drugs garnered a "broad spectrum of support" among workers, activists and "high-powered lobbyists" in South Africa, inspiring a social movement and critique of the government not seen since the demise of the country's apartheid regime in 1994, Mark Gevisser, the Nation's Southern Africa correspondent, writes in an op-ed in the magazine. Gevisser gives much of the credit for this alliance to the South African advocacy group the Treatment Action Campaign, which "brilliantly mobilized" South African citizens to fight the lawsuit brought -- and later dropped -- by 39 pharmaceutical companies against a South African law that would grant the country greater access to generic medicines. Gevisser states that the "broad-based social movements that brought apartheid to its knees in the 1980s ossified into bureaucracy or withered into nonexistence." He writes that an example of the "consequences" of such stagnation occurred in the early 1990s, when AIDS activists helped draft a National AIDS Plan. Although the plan was adopted by the African National Congress, it "was suffocated by red tape" and never implemented because AIDS activists "found themselves inside the system and thus bound by the inevitable constraints of government," Gevisser writes. However, he states, TAC leader Zackie Achmat's recent criticism of the South African government for failing to provide pregnant women with nevirapine to reduce vertical transmission "appeal[s] to the broad left wing of South African society not only because of the government's manifest ineptitude in the face of a horrifying pandemic ... but because the battle for treatment was a perfect vehicle for taking on the heartlessness of global capital and the perceived wrongheadedness of the ANC government's neoliberal macroeconomic policy." Meanwhile, other left-wing groups such as the labor federation COSATU rally around the drug access issue because "it puts flesh on their critique of the government's quest for a balanced budget in line with the World Bank's specifications, a quest that means less funding for programs like the provision of lifesaving medication," Gevisser states. He writes that despite the "battle lines [being] drawn again" between activists and the South African government, it "remains to be seen whether the victory against Big Pharma is anything more than symbolic." Gevisser concludes, "Its significance, rather, is in its creation of a mass-based, independent, critically minded social movement that takes the best of South Africa's tradition of struggle and engages it ... in a battle against the negative consequences of the global economy and the manipulation of institutions like the World Trade Organization by multinational corporations. The TAC's battle could provide the same brand of moral leadership in the global struggle that the antiapartheid movement did in decades past" (Gevisser, Nation, 5/14).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.