South Africa is a country of many heroes. People who gave their lives, careers, safety, neglected their nearest in order to fight for the greater good, against injustice, so all of us could have a future. In the personal pantheon of mine, there are few organisations that are valued as highly as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). And as the crucial month of November 2014 starts to draw to a close, I cannot but ask myself: what country can stand and watch TAC end its existence?
South Africa of 1994 was the country that promised to care. It was a country that promised not to leave anyone behind, and to be there for all people who needed friendship, help, or guidance. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost it.
The Thabo Mbeki-government’s position on HIV/AIDS is still something that I, and many others, cannot fully understand. A once proud organisation, the ANC of Mbeki chose the path of political expedience and even laughed at Nelson Mandela in an 2002 ANC NEC meeting, when he tried to convince them that they really needed to do something about the evil disease that was decimating their own people. People were dying.
In those miserable times, there was still political pressure on Mbeki and his followers from COSATU and its indefatigable general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. There were increasingly loud voices from the civil society. And then there was TAC.
The leaders of TAC (including Zackie Achmat, Mark Heywood, Sipho Mthathi, Vuyiseka Dubula, Mandla Majola, Nathan Geffen, and many others), were highly accomplished people that could have translated their energies into building their own successful careers and comfortable lives. Some of them were not even born in South Africa. Still, they were the people who could not close their eyes and turn their heads away from what was such an apparent injustice – the one that was threatening to tear apart the very fabric of our society, or whatever was left of it. Life was not easy in those days if you were not in Mbeki ANC’s graces, but they did not care.
That TAC fighters were right, was never in doubt. That they could eventually prevail, well, that was not always obvious, not in the days when Mbeki was so totally dominating just about every aspect of SA life. And yet they fought. They spent their days, weeks, months and years driven by the idea that we ought to be a kinder society than we were turning into, and that caring for your poorest and sickest is the only way to live.
They could not save them all. According to estimates, some 350,000 perished needlessly, denied ARV treatment by Mbeki through his proxy, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. But eventually the tide was turned, and the new, Zuma-led ANC embraced TAC’s and COSATU’s positions and introduced the world’s most ambitious ARV programme. The extraordinary transformation for the better was almost instant.
So the time has come for TAC to honourably close and for its people to return to their lives and start thinking about themselves for a change, right? Wrong. Of course.
Since the introduction of the government-sponsored ARV programme, TAC has transformed itself into an indispensable monitoring organisation that is making sure ARVs are delivered and properly so. In the meantime, drug-resistant TB has also reared its ugly head and become epidemic. [There are two forms of drug resistant TB, Multi-Drug Resistant (MDR) and Extremely Drug Resistant (XDR). Both have assumed epidemic proportions in SA and are now being directly transmitted, rather than occurring as a result of poor drug adherence. They are far more expensive to treat and treatment success is much less likely. Most people with XDR die. If the HIV programme descends to the level of TB treatment in future we will face the same problems of drug resistance with HIV. The importance of TAC’s role on fighting these horrible diseases cannot be fully comprehended without seeing the suffering they cause.]
Regardless of Minister Motsoaledi’s personal energy and genuine commitment to delivery, one still cannot forget that the public health sector is in shambles, ravaged by years of corruption and incompetence. Coupled with the political reality of South Africa being de facto a one-party state, the Minister has a few tools in his box with which to ensure, or force, the delivery of the crucial treatments. TAC, on the other hand, is not bound by any political considerations. It is a perfectly positioned and experienced organisation, made of people committed to helping their own communities. TAC of today has around 100 community mobilisers in different parts of SA that earn a pittance by delivering a crucial service to South Africa. So why are we, in the age of firepools, Bentleys, single malts and government-sponsored media, even worrying about TAC’s future?
Because, incredible as it may sound, TAC is, after all these years of fearless service to South Africa, facing a closure. Yes, I can’t believe it either. We can pay R47 million for a Free State website that cost R300 to build, but we as a country cannot find R30 million a year to enable this extraordinary organisation to continue doing what it’s been doing for so long: saving South African lives. And I know this might sound callous, but the lives saved and not lost, through TAC’s actions in itself, save this country billions. Even now, there are still around 600-700 deaths and 1,000 new infections, every per day. Three million new people need to go onto treatment in the next four years. And now, that whole incredible effort, that service that one cannot put a price tag on, it is all in mortal danger.
I consider Mark Heywood and Nathan Geffen dear friends and spent many hours talking to them about the turn of events that resulted in TAC fighting for life. When did we as community stop caring? When did we decide to turn our eyes away? Why are we not more alarmed by the TAC’s possible demise? I’m not sure. Maybe we are, as nation, so hammered daily by bad news and more scandals that we have finally decided to revert into our shells and attempt to self-preserve, temporarily, by the simple act of obliviousness.
That may be true, but the people of the TAC have chosen not to close their eyes. And I am imploring you to open your eyes, now. If the TAC closes, the consequences for South Africa will be tragic. Please, let’s all do what we can for that future never to come. DM
Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick. He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa. Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.