TAC: Nodding along to protesters at #AIDS2016 is not enough

Mark Heywood, the director of social justice organisation Section27 and a board member of the Treatment Action Campaign addressed the media on the sidelines of the International Aids conference on Tuesday. This is a transcript of his speech.

Millions of people around the world are still without HIV treatment

What I’d like to say is that one of the things, that you may have worked out from this press conference so far, is that civil society activism has always been the motor of the response to HIV. From the very earliest days, before HIV was even heard of in South Africa, it was civil society activism in the United States, through groups like, Act Up, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, that forced the US government to pay attention, it forced money into the system to research new medicines and understand this virus. What you may also have understood is that the people sitting at this table, or the organisation that is represented at this table, the Treatment Action Campaign has very much been part of the engine for the last 16 years since we came to Durban in the year 2000 to try to wake our country up, to try and shake our former president, Thabo Mbeki, out of his murderous AIDS denialism and try to put this country on a path to treatment.

What we want to say to you is that that activism will continue. That if TAC has been a motor, or part of the motor or one of the critical cylinders that has driven that motor in the HIV response, it has to be part of that motor as much going into the future, as it has been in the past. And I want to just make four brief points about how we respond so far to this conference and what we think are the critical issues that the South African government and the international governments and PEPFAR and UNAIDS must address going forward.

The first thing I want to say is we welcomed the speeches of Deputy President Ramaphosa last night, of Minister Motsoaledi earlier in the day, of Michel Sidibe, and of others. We are glad that they have moved into a space that is a space about saying that the business is not completed – that there’s a need for a new urgency and a new emergency. We welcome that commitment, but we say that that commitment, at this point, is a commitment that is easy to make on platforms at Aids conferences like this with the newspapers and the radios and the TVs looking at you. We will only believe it when we start to see that commitment start to be translated into action – into real change. And it is that change that we will measure this commitment by. And I will talk to three things we will look for.

The first thing we will look for in South Africa is a roadmap to putting six and a half million people on treatment by 2021 – which is the date that the next National Strategic Plan will finish. A roadmap that will tell us how we go from 3.4 million to 6.5 million people on treatment.

The second thing is we will look for a much more focused campaign about how to turn off the tap of new HIV infections. We have heard the deputy president talk about young girls and they’re all making the right noises. The question is, will the right noises be followed by the right actions? The question is, will this government initiate a plan that will take place in 25, 000 schools across the country and that will make sure that every young person in this country sees a condom? That every young person in this country is offered an HIV test. That young men are offered circumcision. That information about sex is provided in schools in a non-judgemental fashion that allows people to make the right decisions about sex. If we did that, and if we started that immediately, we could turn off the tap. We could turn off the tap – the question is, do we have the will? Because in this instance the will means talking to conservative churches, conservative traditional leaders, to people who think that giving people condoms means encouraging sex – which it does not. That is challenge number two.

Challenge number three and then I will finish. We heard, and Violet will expand on this so I won’t say much, the executive director of UNAids said there must be one million newly trained community healthcare workers across the world. He said 200, 000 in South Africa and I saw Deputy President Ramaphosa nodding his head on that – and Minister Motsoaledi nodding their head on that. When are we going to go from head-nodding to employment and training and proper conditions for community healthcare workers. Nodding heads. We’ve had nodding heads for ten years on this issue of community healthcare workers. We don’t want anymore head nodding – we want the reality.

The last question, we’re talking about the funding gap. We’re interested in the funding gap for civil society as much as anything else. Because a car without petrol doesn’t move. We’re telling you the petrol is civil society, but we don’t have money to buy the petrol. And without money to buy the petrol, you don’t have petrol. Cars don’t run on water, they don’t run on thin air – so where will that money come from, to make it possible for TAC, Section27 and other organisations to continue the job which has been recognised in this conference by people like the deputy president?

Thank you.

Featured image courtesy of the International AIDS Society/Rogan Ward