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  • The Treatment Action Campaign, HIV/AIDS and the Government
  • Zackie Achmat (bio)

This is an edited transcript from a talk given by Zackie Achmat at a meeting organised by the University of Natal Branch of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). The guest editors would like to thank Zackie Achmat and TAC for permission to use it.

The struggle of TAC is, in the first and the last instance, a struggle about our constitutional rights to life and dignity and also to equity. Why do we say life? Life because without medicine - and also of course according to the Minister of Health, without food - people die. I don't know how long it's taken for the Minister to discover that. All of us have known it for a long time. Life, access to medicine and to good health care will extend the lives of many people living with HIV and AIDS. So life is the first thing to think about.

The second is the issue of dignity because dying of AIDS and dying of AIDS related illnesses is not a glamorous thing. It is not easy to die of AIDS. It is a horrible, undignified and really painful process for the people who go through it. It is a process that removes any vestige of dignity that a person might have. When you have diarrhoea, you lose control of your body. When you can't move, you are relying on other people to carry things for you. When you can't sleep, you are reliant on having a friend around. But most of all, especially for poor people, the big problem is the carrying of additional packages. There is, for example, the additional burden of carrying water for your mother when she's ill. There's having to give up important things when you are young - for instance, when you are a girl of 8 or 10 years old and have to leave school to look after ill parents. It's about equality, because no matter what anyone says, it's those of us with money who can afford to buy life. It is those of us who are employed, who are, incredibly, allowed access to life saving medicine. But it's those who are poor who do [End Page 76] not have access to proper health provision. That is the case both in this country and in many other parts of the world - including Europe and the United States - where, although most people have access to good care, the poor and marginalised communities still remain outside of the formal heath care services.

TAC started a civil disobedience campaign on March 20 this year [2003]. Hundreds of activists presented ourselves for arrests and demanded the arrest of the Health Minister and the Minister of Trade and Industry. We didn't do this because we sought publicity. We didn't do this because it was an easy thing to do. For four and a half years we have negotiated with the government. We have petitioned the government. We have used every instrument that our new democracy gave us - the Constitution, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equity, NEDLAC (the National Economic Development and Labour Council) - a body that most people forgot about until our debate with government began. We've used every single opportunity that the democratic government and our democratic constitution have given us. For us, that was not an easy decision because many of us, including myself, had previously put party politics before the right to life. And I think when one does that, one enters a zone of lack of comfort. After all, how can we speak of equality and the right to life when we ourselves put our party loyalty before people's lives? And so, putting people's lives first was a very, very difficult process and a very painful one in which we had to confront what we believed, still believe, is a legitimate government, a democratic government; and I believe one that is much better than those that went before.

Now let's take this, what did we say happens? Six hundred people a day die. We note, ironically, that the government...


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