Friday's protest at the US Consulate by the Treatment Action Campaign and NGO colleagues was not a good thing for either side. The TAC’s argument was based mostly on wrong information, and the US consulate people didn't have much to say anyway.
It had something of the flavour of a family dinner that slips into frustration as relatives argue over who can best make one of great-grandma’s recipes. For years the demonstrators’ organisations and the US were together, confronting the inanities – and worse – from the weird kitchen garden of HIV/Aids remedies for which the late minister for health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, had become infamous.
Dealing with those wild-eyed ideas, the TAC and its NGO supporters had been the hammer while the international aid and medical communities became the anvil, flailing away at the ANC government’s outrageous snake oil concoctions or its withholding drugs that could have helped save more than 300,000 lives and helped millions more.
So, The Daily Maverick, plus a small knot of other journalists, waited in the mid-winter sun on the grassy surrounds of the American consulate general for something to happen. With us was a force of police and diplomatic security guards sufficient to care for a good-sized suburb.
Drifting over to share our patch of winter sun came NGOs from the Philippines and Sweden, curious passersby, and then about 1,000 demonstrators wearing teal-coloured T-shirts and guiding along a big white helium balloon, with the words “The world is watching” and a big eye painted on it. But they hadn’t come to burn Uncle Sam in effigy or protest foreign invasions. Instead, they laughed, chanted, carried their posters, guided their balloon and delivered 20,000 unfurled paper kites, symbolic of lives that will not soar upward without more US help, said the organisers.
In part, the demonstrators may have been motivated to action by erroneous news reports that US-funded HIV/Aids programmes had actually lost funding or had even been paid for with cheques that had “bounced” because of insufficient funds. Beyond that, the demonstrators insisted the US increase its already large financial contribution in the struggle against HIV/Aids. In pre-emptive response, the Americans had made it clear that the US was already the largest funder and that in South Africa, Pepfar funding had increased almost every year since the start of the programme in 2004. The budget for 2009 was $551 million and that for 2010 is $564 million with an additional $120 million for anti-retrovirals in 2009-2010.
Could the demonstrators really expect any more than that? They responded:
“The US government’s Pepfar programme was a global leader in ART [anti-retroviral therapy] funding. But today, under the Obama administration, the US was turning away from Pepfar. The 2010 and 2011 budget requests had kept Aids funding the same while inflation was not taken into account. Worse, they had decreased funding for ART. The US had also stated that Pepfar would move away from providing ‘direct care’ in favour of ‘technical assistance’.”
In cold arithmetic, what the demonstrators seemed to be advocating was that America should do even more to help than the rather big thing it was already doing. The US should ramp up the rate of increase with its aid to reach donor pledges from half-a-decade ago. But a subtlety like this didn’t quite fit into a chant for a street march. Strangely the demonstrators didn’t seem to be in a discussion about what South Africans can or should do – or what they should demand of their government.
Taken together, the juxtaposed statements seem like a lovers’ quarrel: “If you really loved me, you would buy it for me!” which is answered by “Well, yes, of course I love you, but I have some very urgent financial matters I simply must deal with right now too.”
These two sides had been together at the barricades for so many years. But it has become an awkward standoff between consulate and demonstrators. The demonstrators claim they had an agreement that they would arrive, read their statement, hand it over to a senior consulate representative to deliver higher up and leave. But the consulate representative was not going to clamber onto the back of a flatbed truck for an ungainly conversation via loudhailer.
The Daily Maverick had asked a consulate staffer what was going to happen, only to be told, “We don’t know. No, actually we do know…but we can’t tell you.” Well, maybe they were right the first time. Or maybe the two sides just have very different expectations about how to bring this awkward collision to a conclusion.
And yet, when a portion of the demonstrators’ letter was read aloud, it said:
“We call on the US government to provide global leadership to achieve… universal access to antiretroviral therapy …we would like to state that TAC and our allies acknowledge and appreciate that the US government, particularly via Pepfar and the US contributions to the Global Fund on Aids, TB and malaria, has played a leading role in providing treatment, care and prevention for Aids, as well as TB and malaria….”
The petitioners finished off with the stuff of a bureaucrat’s briefing paper: a call on the US government to increase its funding to achieve pledges from five years ago; for the US to increase its contribution to the international Global Fund; a plea that the US would urge EU states, China, Japan and Canada to give more; to ask AU members to meet their own funding commitments; and for the US to craft a stronger partnership with the South African government on Aids. They finish with a “Yes we can!” slogan taken directly from Barack Obama’s playbook.
It might have better had the US simply said: “Thank you for coming. We feel your pain, we have some disagreements and disappointments, but you must understand our budgetary problems right now are really severe, but we’ll do what we can. Yes, of course, we agree this fight is crucial.”
Instead, as it evolved, the TAC’s Vuyiseka Dubula read those excerpts through a spluttering bull horn, as half a dozen demonstrators fell to the ground symbolising dead people, the contents of a big box of shoes were scattered around to serve as stand-ins for other “dead people” who did not receive treatment, a consulate rep finally received their letter and the afternoon dribbled away instead of affirming that “we are all in this fight together”.
And as The Daily Maverick left, a small group of demonstrators collected litter from the road, making a stab at tidying up after their march, as they walked back to the buses that had brought them to Sandton.
By J Brooks Spector