Welcome mood of celebration at Aids summit
THIS week’s Aids 2016 was the second conference of the International Aids Society held in Durban. The first was in 2000.
This one spanned 500 sessions, the presentation of 2 500 research studies, the attendance of more than 18 000 delegates, plus a continuously revolving celebrity sideshow with the likes of Bill Gates, Charlize Theron and Sir Elton John, as well as thousands of media, security and support staff.
Given that it runs over a week, it’s a happening that probably drew more people than does Kings Park Stadium during a bad season for the Sharks.
It’s part august scientific gathering, part jamboree. It’s also a shining example of the power of social activism.
Durban 2000 opened under the cloud of President Thabo Mbeki’s denialism over HIV/Aids. He was the keynote speaker and – as with apartheid-era president PW Botha’s speech a dozen or so years earlier, also in Durban – the bated-breath hope was Mbeki would cross a personal Rubicon, recant his pseudo-scientific claptrap and move swiftly to address a national crisis.
Alas, Mbeki’s Rubicon, like PW’s, remained resolutely unforded and the rest, as they say, is history. Because of a strange combination of timidity and arrogance, both men will always be remembered as much for what they did not do, as for what they did do.
If the mood in 2000 was one of disappointment, it was also one of defiance. Out of Mbeki’s intransigence came a mobilisation of ordinary people around the provision of antiretroviral treatment that transformed, entirely peacefully, SA politics.
Driving this was the Treatment Action Campaign, which embarked upon the kind of rolling mass action, sans stones and burning tyres, that brought the apartheid government to its knees. Using every tool in the Democracy 101 toolkit, the TAC took on and triumphed, both against the pharmaceutical giants and the ANC government.
So Durban 2016 has been a different animal from its predecessor 16 years ago. The mood was triumphant, celebratory. Not only have enormous advances been made in HIV medication, but also the political foe has been vanquished and turned into an ally.
Although President Jacob Zuma – the man who infamously prescribed a post-coital shower as an antidote to HIV infection – was nowhere to be seen, everyone else who most mattered in terms of influencing perceptions was. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa led the charge along with Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, with a gruelling schedule of speeches, panel appearances, briefings and walkabouts.
Heavily involved was Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, a man so highly regarded in international funder circles, that no one even jested about the garlic, beetroot and a lethal industrial solvent peddled as cures by his now mercifully deceased Mbeki-era predecessor.
Also in attendance were cabinet heavyweights like Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.
One of the most interesting and important events was a panel organised by the influential Ford Foundation, entitled Navigating Power. Intended as “a candid conversation between funding partners and activists”, it delivered more than a griping session.
At the heart of it was the changing nature of funding and the changing nature of the organisations that are funded.
In SA, in the fertile wake of the TAC tsunami, a host of civil society organisations sprang up. These tended to be more focused, tackling single aspects of a problem rather than an entire system.
Donors far prefer to fund such short-term tightly defined projects with directly measurable results, albeit that these are often socially and politically trivial. The alternative is to fund over the long-term the general budgets of organisations seeking broader structural change.
Ironically, the TAC, once the darling of the donor community, is victim to this change of emphasis and is struggling to survive.
On the panel, TAC chair Qondisa Ngwenya argued passionately for the need to move beyond administrative minutiae and short projects.
Instead donors should set longer timelines, partnering with organisations that share their core values and providing funding that is less prescriptive.
Patrick Gaspard, the United States ambassador to SA, articulated the flipside. The aggressive agitation of civil society had in SA achieved much in the field HIV/ Aids, as well as opening up “democratic conversation” at various levels of SA society.
But despite billions of dollars from the US government for HIV/ Aids work, SA activists continually berate the US government for not being supportive enough. It was all “a little exasperating” since donors, too, were accountable to those who provided their funds.
And, diplomatically unspoken by Gaspard, to the governments of the countries they operate in.
While African governments welcome the benefits brought by foreign donor funding, they are also extremely wary of it.
Especially when it involves NGOs that exist expressly because of a competency or democratic lacuna created by the failures of the government
That’s when the likes of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe start shouting about “regime change” plots.