On 10 December 1998, International Human Rights Day, a group of about 15 people protested on the steps of St George's Cathedral in Cape Town to demand medical treatment for people living with the virus that causes AIDS. The group included people with HIV, a medical student, a 66-year-old grandmother, a former human rights commissioner and a selection of others determined to draw attention to the unnecessary suffering and death caused by the untreated epidemic. Passers-by were surprised. Not many of them knew that you could treat AIDS. They didn't realise that AIDS medications were freely available in Western countries.
By the end of the day the group had collected over 1000 signatures calling on the government to develop a treatment plan for all people living with HIV, and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) was born.
The launch of TAC opened a new chapter in AIDS politics in South Africa. It came at a time when existing AIDS organisations were struggling with internal problems in the face of a growing epidemic and an uninterested public. South Africans were tired of messages of doom and gloom.
They were tired of hearing how AIDS was going to kill millions of people, wreck the economy and overwhelm the health services, and how there was nothing that could be done to stop it.
Although anti-AIDS drugs had changed the face of the epidemic in developed countries, most South Africans did not know they existed. Even health workers and AIDS activists seemed to accept that these drugs were simply out of the reach of developing countries, condemning 95% of the world's HIV-positive population to a painful and premature death.
But on 30 November 1998, when well-know gay rights and AIDS activist Simon Nkoli joined the long list of South Africans to die of AIDS-related causes, his colleague and comrade Zackie Achmat knew something had to be done.
" I had been thinking about treatment for a while and asking how we could stand by and do nothing while people kept dying," said Achmat, a former anti-Apartheid activist. "But whoever I spoke to said it was impossible; the drugs were way out of our reach. Around that time I became very sick myself and I thought I was going to die. I had terrible thrush in my mouth and throat and I couldn't swallow anything. Eventually I was prescribed fluconazole, a very expensive drug. My friends helped me pay for it and still it nearly bankrupted me. I knew that if I hadn't been able to afford the treatment I would have died, like so many other people. On top of Simon's death it was just the last straw."
Achmat spoke at Simon Nkoli's memorial service and announced that a protest and fast would be held on 10 December 1998 to launch a new campaign, under the auspices of the National Association of People With AIDS (Napwa), to fight for access to treatment. Originally conceived as a Napwa project, TAC has grown into a powerful independent force in South African politics. In just two years the organisation has spread the message that people with HIV/AIDS can be treated and that poor people have a right to health care. The message has been loud and persistent, and neither the pharmaceutical industry nor the government has been able to ignore it.
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