Jonathan Mann Award Acceptance Speech – Delivered by Nonkosi Khumalo on behalf of Zackie Achmat and the Treatment Action Campaign
Good evening. My name is Nonkosi Khumalo. I am the women’s health programmes co-coordinator for the Treatment Action Campaign and I am grateful to be here tonight to accept the Jonathan Mann award on behalf of Zackie Achmat.
It is an honour for Zackie to have been selected by the Global Health Council as one of the co-recipients of the Jonathan Mann Award this year. Thank you.
I accept this award not only on Zackie’s behalf but also for the TAC and its many volunteers across South Africa who dedicate their lives to alleviating an epidemic that this year will claim more than 600 of my countrymen every day.
When I accept this award, I think of people like Vuyani Jacobs, who as I speak, is mobilizing nurses and doctors across South Africa to campaign for better conditions in our public health sector. He is able to work today, but not long ago he suffered from meningitis and was beginning to lose his memory.
I also think of Hazel Tau, who shortly after announcing in a press conference that she was the first complainant in litigation at South Africa’s Competition Commission to get GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim to reduce the prices of their antiretroviral medicines, almost collapsed and was later told she had a CD4 count of less than 10.
This award is also for Nontsikelelo Zwedala, who lives in a shack without any basic facilities in one of Cape Town’s poorest townships. Despite seeing her boyfriend die of systemic thrush because he could not afford a drug called fluconazole and who herself suffered from thrush for months, she bravely participated in every TAC picket, march and community awareness, prevention and treatment literacy programme, with a weight of 42 kilograms and a viral load of over 3 million. She now weighs 65 kilograms, works as a counsellor and has an undetectable viral load.
Hazel is recovering and Vuyani and Nontsikelelo are able to work because like most people in Europe and the United States, they have access to life-saving treatments.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of my countrymen, in fact the vast majority of Africans, do not have access to antiretroviral therapy. Neither do many have access to medicines to treat opportunistic infections nor do they receive palliative care when they experience painful, slow and, far too often, lonely deaths from AIDS.
I also accept this award in memory of Christopher Moraka, Sarah Hlalele, Edwuard Mabunda, Kebareng Moeketsi, Nomfundo Somana and many other activists that not only dedicated their lives to ensuring better access to health care services for all, but died because they could not have access to life-saving medicines for HIV/AIDS.
The TAC will continue ensuring that the barriers to the lack of access to medicines in Africa come down. In the last four years, it has been our honour to have been part of a global campaign of people who hold human rights above profit. This global campaign has forced drug companies to drop some of their essential medicine prices. It has also resulted in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
Critically, in South Africa, it has seen the emergence of people who do not hide their HIV status, who wear t-shirts saying HIV-positive. They do this because only by destigmatising HIV, can the human dignity that this epidemic robs people of, be restored.
Nevertheless, there is much to be done. Drug prices remain too high and access to generic versions of essential patented medicines remains the exception. The Global Fund remains terribly under-financed and discrimination against people with HIV in South Africa and elsewhere is still a serious problem.
However, what is most hurtful for those of us who fought to bring about democracy in South Africa, is the response of the South African Government to the HIV epidemic which has been characterised by denial.
But I am hopeful. Within the next few weeks, my government has the opportunity to put the errors of the last few years behind it. There is reason to believe that very soon the South African government will make real progress towards the implementation of a comprehensive treatment and prevention plan. If it does not – if the denial continues – it is not the resumption of TAC’s high-profile peaceful civil disobedience campaign that government should fear, but the immense anger, misery, death and betrayal that millions of South Africans will experience.
The South African government has had many opportunities to do the right thing in the past. It truly must take this opportunity. By doing so it will give meaning to the South African Constitution’s most important protections: the rights to life and dignity.