The Treatment Action Campaign has called for the removal of South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang for inviting an infamous AIDS dissident, Robert Giraldo, to become an adviser to her government on nutrition for people with AIDS. Giraldo believes that nutritional deficiencies, and antiretroviral drugs, are the cause of AIDS, rather than HIV.
TAC is also planning a series of actions, fed up with the government’s failure to adopt a national treatment plan. Despite repeated promises by government representatives to move forward a national treatment plan for people with HIV, the government has thus far failed to commit to anything. And even though a speech on February 26 by Finance Minister Trevor Manual proposed doubling government spending on HIV/AIDS (see below), the speech fell far short of endorsing a national treatment plan.
In a tersely worded press release, “TAC notes with deep regret that Government has missed our 28 February deadline for signing the NEDLAC framework agreement for a national HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention plan. Government has also not responded to our memorandum delivered to Parliament on 14 February. Our plans to begin a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience remain unchanged. Details of further action will be made available in due course.”
TAC is now mobilizing for the campaign of civil disobedience by staging workshops for activists willing to face arrest. Sources suggest that the organization will not conduct any actions until later in the month.
However, TAC’s potential ally in the campaign, the powerful trade union organization COSATU, has chosen to take a slightly different tack. COSATU has held a series of meetings with the Health Minister and deputy president Jacob Zuma to try to jumpstart the negotiation process. It has issued a press release retracting its accusation that the government has retreated from an agreement on a treatment plan.
“We regret the confusion and in particular the dragging into this controversy of President Mbeki,” the statement reads. “COSATU may have differences on specific issues with the Minister or the Department of Health, but it does not question the government or the Minister’s integrity or commitment to make a contribution to the struggle to build a better life for all.”
It is unclear whether COSATU is waffling, or if they are simply playing “good cop” to TAC’s bad cop. In an interview with Johannesburg’s Sunday Times, TAC’s Zachie Achmat said the TAC understood the pressure" COSATU was facing from the ANC-lead government. "It is not very comfortable to have the pressure of the most powerful liberation movement on the continent on us either.” COSATU representatives, meanwhile, have said that they were afraid that the treatment plan was dead in the water unless they offered an olive branch to the government.
But it is noteworthy that the COSATU retraction was published just one day after Finance Minister Manuel’s budget talk. Though it fell short of the endorsement of the treatment plan, the budget was widely lauded for the increased funding made available for Health care infrastructure development and the increased spending on HIV/AIDS.
In his very carefully worded speech, Manuel said that provision has been made in the budget for antiretroviral medicines "should" government decide to begin distributing drugs in public health care facilities. Over the next three years, an additional R3.3-billion (or roughly around £260 million) had been added "to extend preventive programmes and finance medically appropriate treatment for HIV/AIDS."
Since many of these funds will be disbursed through the provincial health ministries, some clinicians hope that the decision to provide antiretroviral treatment could be left up to the provincial health ministers.
However, since much of the additional funding is to be spent on condom distribution, prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission, and on TB and malaria management programmes, it is clear that whatever funds are left over will be woefully inadequate to treat the 4.5 million people already infected with HIV.
Finally, Tshabalala-Msimang’s choice of Giraldo as an adviser suggests that the Health Minister is still thinking along ideological lines regarding antiretroviral treatment and that it will continue to be a sticking point in the negotiations over the national treatment plan.
But with this latest gaffe, more organizations are demanding that she be removed from power. Opposition party, the Democratic Alliance and the AIDS Law Project also have called for her removal. And Pieter Dirk-Uys, South Africa’s famous drag performer and social critic, has gone even further. He has begun a campaign to have both Tshabalala-Msimang and President Mbeki tried in the World Court of Justice in The Hague for genocide.
"Rather this happen now than in 10 years time, when the world will no doubt look back at 2003 and the actions of Mbeki and his minister, and realise that by acting sooner, millions of lives could have been saved from an unnecessary death. The people of SA are dying because of government carelessness and political negligence," says Uys.