Wel­come mood of cel­e­bra­tion at Aids sum­mit

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

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.


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