South African Police Shoot AIDS Activists

Posted in: News 2005-Older

South African police forces opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas on a group of several hundred protesters demanding a faster roll-out of state-financed HIV medications last week. At least 40 people were injured, 10 of whom were treated for gunshot wounds, according to news reports.

On Tuesday, July 12, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) staged a march at Frontier Hospital in the Eastern Cape city of Queenstown. The organization said it planned the demonstration after six months of negotiations with local health officials on a range of HIV treatment concerns proved fruitless.

Around 700 marchers, primarily women and many living with HIV, gathered in what organizers insist was a wholly peaceful protest. “We were expressing our anger in a peaceful, dignified and assertive manner,” declared a TAC statement distributed a day after the clash. “We will continue to use peaceful mass mobilization.”

Police spokesperson Superintendent Gcinikaya Taleni told Reuters that the marchers had broken into the hospital and blocked doctors and nurses from treating patients. Taleni said the hospital contacted police and asked them to disperse the crowd. “We used minimum force to remove them – rubber bullets and smoke grenades,” Taleni said.

But activists painted a starkly different picture.

“The police started beating people … then shooting at them,” TAC Deputy Chairperson Sipho Mthati told Reuters. “It really was excessive force – it’s not like they were burning tires or throwing stones, it was a peaceful protest in a hospital.”

TAC has posted video clips of the demonstration and the police action against protestors on its website. None of the protesters were arrested or charged with crimes.

The international human rights community has joined TAC in decrying the police action. In a written statement, UNAIDS called the police forces’ behavior “unacceptable,” adding, “UNAIDS has long supported and will continue to support the freedom of assembly and association for people living with HIV.”

Human Rights Watch urged the national government to launch an “immediate investigation” into the methods police used to disperse the protesters, noting that their actions appear to violate UN-established international standards on “the appropriate use of force by police.”

In November 2003, after years of bitter legal wrangling and pressure from the global community, South Africa’s national health department unveiled a plan to provide universal access to HIV treatment through public hospitals and clinics, with each of the nation’s provinces responsible for spearheading the local roll-outs.

Since that time, AIDS activists watching over the process have often charged that the pace is moving too slowly and that the national government is failing to provide enough leadership. As of January 2005, just over 32,000 people had entered the publicly-financed treatment program, according to health department numbers provided by TAC.

Last week, the health department released a 2004 study that estimated at least 6.29 million of South Africa’s 47 million residents are HIV positive. The estimate comes from HIV tests conducted at pre-natal clinics around the country. The latest UNAIDS estimate for South Africa, from July 2004, puts the HIV case load anywhere between 4.5 million and 6.2 million.

Frontier Hospital serves a sprawling territory that includes smaller districts around Queenstown. TAC asserts that an estimated 2,000 people in the area need HIV treatment, but fewer than 200 have received it. Only 10 have been enrolled in treatment programs this year. Meanwhile, TAC charges, more than 50 people have died while on the hospital’s waiting list for treatment.

Queenstown is in the Eastern Cape province, which is one of South Africa’s poorest and has been a particular hotspot for disputes between government and advocates for expanded treatment. Before President Thabo Mbeki’s government agreed to launch a universal treatment plan, the global aid organization Medicines Sans Frontieres dramatized the stalemate by launching its own treatment program in the Eastern Cape. Mbeki and others — notably, those in the U.S. government — had argued that the complexities of HIV care were too profound to allow for a successful antiretroviral program in poor regions like the Eastern Cape; the MSF initiative aimed to prove that assertion wrong.

About 3,700 people in the province are currently getting publicly-financed treatment. But late last year, according to TAC, the provincial health department put the breaks on new enrollees. In a December 29, 2004, memo quoted by TAC, an Eastern Cape Health Department official ordered, “No new clients should be admitted on [antiretroviral drugs] until further notice. Continue sending those already on treatment to Frontier Hospital.”

TAC’s demonstration at the hospital aimed to draw attention to this enrollment cap.

TAC introduced itself to the world with a raucous march through downtown Durban during the 2000 global AIDS conference — the first to be held in an African nation, or any developing world country. Activists from around the country wore t-shirts with “HIV Positive” emblazoned across the chest, a move intended to combat stigma around the virus but that doubled as a political jab at President Mbeki. At the time, Mbeki was vocally suggesting that HIV may not be the cause of AIDS, and thus that AIDS drugs may not be the answer to the nation’s spiraling death toll.

The march galvanized an international treatment access movement, centered in South Africa but spreading across the content and the globe. “It transformed people in poor countries from recipients of solidarity and recipients of other people’s concerns into agents for our own right to life, our own health, our own dignity,” TAC founder Zackie Achmat said in a recent interview with “And, it set the agenda in a very different way. Instead of the outrage of individuals, it sought to build a movement locally and globally.”

In response to the July 12 police action, TAC now plans to stage a “mass demonstration” in Queenstown next Tuesday, July 26. “We will march to enforce our constitutional rights to life, dignity, freedom to demonstrate, equality and access to health care,” declared last week’s TAC statement.

Compiled by with additional reporting from news wire services.

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