part 4: four posts by judge edwin cameron

I think most of you know that we entered a difficult period in our national life when our president appeared to be questioning the fundamental etiology of AIDS. In started in 1999 when he caused start on whether HIV testing, [inaudible] and about whether the virus was the cause of the epidemic of debilitation and sickness and immune collapse that was patently spreading through southern Africa and affecting South Africa increasingly. It was a period as Michael has indicated of tremendous contestation, tremendous national grief which appeared to end in November 2003 almost two years ago when our government committed itself to a publicly funded treatment program that included provision of antiretroviral drugs to poor people at public health facilities. I want to make an important point about that whole difficult period which culminated in the cabinet statement committing to antiretroviral treatment provisions. It’s a paradoxical statement because people often say to me, “Isn’t the story of AIDS policy in your country a sign of failure?” And the truth is that it’s quite the opposite.

What we had was very high level questioning from a very powerful and deeply intellectual and thoughtful man with a very entrenched party which had obtained nearly two-thirds of the votes at the most recent national election. And we had a questioning as to whether antiretroviral medication was appropriate or necessary at all and whether it wasn’t a toxic imposition imposed on Africa by drug corporations and by a white set of ideas inappropriate to the African problem of AIDS.

What did we get in response to that? We firstly got what Michael spoke about which was an outcry of activist fervor led very courageously and inventively by the Treatment Action Campaign in my country, which forged alliances with the trade union movement, with the churches, with civil society actors. And which although overwhelmingly their members were loyal ANC supporters, nevertheless, had the independence and the autonomy to confront government on this vital issue. We had the media, increasingly black led, they are black editors, black columnists who immensely articulately confronted the president. And in the book I’ve got a roll of honor, a roll of honor which necessarily in such a racially loaded epidemic is racially defined. I mention the names of ten or fifteen black media leaders and their race is so significant to the standard and to the courage that they showed in taking it. Those media leaders confronted the president. They spoke up with great passion and anger and clarity about his stand on AIDS.

We had a third phenomenon which is that the Treatment Activists took the government to court. It was a unanimous ruling by the Constitutional Court in July 2002 that guided the government to the path of antiretroviral treatment provision. A unanimous ruling signed by all eleven judges under the name of the court, in which the court was at pains to set up the conventional medical and biological view of AIDS which of course is that it is caused by a virus. The fundamentally hopeful view that it is caused by a virus because that virus can now be medically managed. We had the court system being activated and activated in a way that gave rise to clarity and judgment, which the government then very similarly conceded to and agreed to implement, and has implemented. And finally and most hopefully we have rumors, only rumors, and as judge Michael probably knows I’m on my best behavior in front of a Washington audience, I don’t retail rumors. But they were rumors of leaders within the cabinet, of great dissension within the cabinet who persuaded the president to not insist on his stand prevailing on the question of antiretroviral provision. That, for me, is a story which I, as a South African, am very proud of. I can tell you that after eleven years of democracy we have a complex democracy. A democracy in which there is a strong activist civil society, in which there is a free and independent media, in which the civil society partners of government are not scared to confront it. We don’t have a unilinear [misspelled?] society in which one man or one woman is likely at this stage, in which one person says A and A is what the result is in policy implementation. We have a county which has free ports, independent port which autonomously direct the government when it strays from its constitutional duties. That is a picture that I’m proud of. I’m not wholly proud of what we are achieving in terms of AIDS policy delivery. That brings me to the two passages that I want to read today. We still have so far to go, both in South Africa and in the rest of Africa.