South Africa

Op-Ed: TAC – The reach and influence of grassroots activism

By Tess Peacock 12 November 2014

TAC is the most important post-Apartheid social movement in South Africa. They highlighted early on in our young democracy the relationship between the law and social and political issues which has a long history in this country. TAC is a dynamic social movement that manages to use the power of people as well as the power of the law to improve equitable access to health care in this country. TAC’s activism radically changed government policy and in so doing inspired young teenagers and students in the post 1994 generation with the idea that activism can make tangible differences to thousands of peoples’ lives. TAC also continuously reminds that us that the purpose of the law in a constitutional democracy is to serve the poor. By TESS PEACOCK.

TAC’s ability to use the law strategically ensured that we heed the late Minister Dullah Omar’s warning in 1997 that:

“Because of the imbalances we have inherited, only a few people have the capacity to enjoy their rights and the danger we face is that the Bill [of Rights] will be the sole preserve of the rich and powerful.”

Their achievements undoubtedly influenced the creation and continuing work of Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ). It influenced our activism and our participation in growing and shaping SLSJ during our student years and beyond.

SLSJ is a countrywide law students’ organisation represented across nine universities from the rural campus of Northwest University in Mafikeng, the historically black University of Fort Hare to the predominantly white University of Stellenbosch. SLSJ is committed to growing a generation of lawyers dedicated to transforming our legal culture so that it embodies the values of the Constitution and in so doing, moves South Africa to a more equal society. Coming from different universities and backgrounds across the country, we shared a leadership platform on the National Executive Committee of SLSJ. We were all influenced by TAC, working to promote social justice across racial and class membership.

South Africa has a dark history of AIDS denialism, contributing to the unnecessary deaths of over 300,000 people. Many people angered by the gross and vivid injustice found a home in the Treatment Action Campaign. TAC marched in the streets, captured our anger and frustration and then went to court and challenged the government’s policies. The Constitutional Court in the case of Minister of Health and Others v Treatment Action Campaign and Others (2002 (5) SA 703) found ultimately that government’s health policies dealing with HIV/AIDS were unreasonable, in particular the government’s failure to provide Neviropine to pregnant women. This victory changed the course of health policy in South Africa and arguably saved hundreds of thousands of peoples’ lives. It took eight years since the dawn of the South African Constitution for TAC to really show us the benefits of having justiciable socio-economic rights. It was ultimately TAC that showed us what the law is capable of when used strategically to advance justice. They also showed us that the law is most effectively used when used in conjunction with, or complimentary to social mobilisation, which can build a moral and political consensus around the relevant issue. The Constitutional Court lists this judgment as one of its landmark cases since the court’s inception. The judgment is undoubtedly the most significant on the right to have access to health and it laid the foundation for further socio-economic rights litigation.

While the TAC cases had massive jurisprudential, political, social and economic consequences, it also brought a shift in how we, as young lawyers, think about how we work and relate to our clients seeking social reform. The most resounding lesson is that lawyers are the trusted facilitators of the claims of their clients who must, as of political necessity, play an active role in shaping legal strategies. The role of lawyers is not to take over their client’s cases and usurp their power to direct their campaigns inside and outside the court, but to work with and sometimes to follow the leadership of their clients. Without the strong principled and informed leadership cultivated within TAC and other growing social movements, public interest lawyers in particular are weakened.

As indignant youth, at risk of joining the ranks of disinterest and apathy of our peers, the work and people of TAC captured our imagination of what was possible to achieve in solidarity, against on-going injustice. As law students, the struggle for the rights of women, newborn babies and non-discrimination waged through the law, in the courts and on the streets, expressed what was possible in our constitutional democracy, but brought to light the long road ahead. As fledgling lawyers, we understood that we had a role to play in support of real grassroots community struggle for equality.

SLSJ, an organisation committed to social justice, therefore learnt and continues to learn from TAC’s grassroots activism. SLSJ is trying to galvanise a generation of law students behind a national campaign calling for community service for all law students as well to have law students, an important resource, working in community centres across the country in the same way medical students do in hospitals especially in rural areas where they are mostly needed. SLSJ’s campaign was strengthened from gaining grassroots support from people who constantly lack access to justice and demand, together, effective efforts to ameliorate this.

Statistics show that HIV/AIDS transmission rates are still high and public health care still lacks infrastructure and human resources. TAC’s army of employees and volunteers still have a vital role to play, recently exposing the medicine stock crisis in the Free State and Eastern Cape. “AIDS is not over” and we cannot afford to lose the influence that TAC continues to have in advancing the right of access to health care.

TAC wrestled a cadre of young people, like ourselves, out of the doldrums of insignificance and propelled them into a movement working towards the improvement of the lives of the poor and working class who had endured suffering during the years of minority rule and beyond. By providing a space for all who are committed to this cause, to debate respectfully and to challenge injustice while being rooted in the hundreds of rural and township communities across the country.

A true movement is only what ordinary people contribute to its sustenance. We believe in the work, in the cause and therefore pledge to give financial support to TAC. We implore other young people do the same. DM

Tess Peacock is Law Research Clerk at the Constitutional Court, Mkhululi Nonjola is a Candidate Attorney at Cox Yeats Attorneys, Yana van Leeve is an attorney at the Equal Education Law Centre.

Photo: A file picture dated in June 2003 of thousands of people marching through the streets of Johannesburg in support for the Treatment Action Campaign(TAC), demanding the South African government hand out free anti retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV/Aids. EPA/Kim Ludbrook


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