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South Africa: One for our Side

Rami El-Amine
Date Published: 
June 1, 2001

AIDS, health, and anti-globalization activists scored a major victory against corporate greed in mid April when they forced 42 Pharmaceutical companies to drop their lawsuit against the South African government’s production of generic AIDS drugs. The HIV/AIDS pandemic had reached such a catastrophic level in South Africa that the government was forced to take drastic measures to begin addressing the problem. South Africa has the highest number of people living with AIDS: 4.7 million. Four hundred thousand South Africans have died of AIDS related illnesses since a generic drug law was introduced in 1997.

The WTO in practice

The pharmaceutical companies claimed that the South African law violated the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement which all World Trade Organization (WTO) members must uphold. While there are some exceptions allowed under this agreement, it essentially gives pharmaceutical companies a 20-year monopoly on the sale of patented drugs. This has allowed drug companies to charge astronomical prices for life saving HIV/AIDS medication, thereby making them inaccessible to roughly 90% of the 34 million living with AIDS world wide. Just how much these companies are making off this medication became clear when, because of the pressure activists exerted on them, they offered to sell HIV/AIDS medication to the poorest countries at discounted rates or at cost.

In the weeks following the March 5 international day of action called by the South African umbrella organization Treatment Access Campaign (TAC) to mark the first day of the law trial, Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb announced they would sell several of their HIV/AIDS medications at cost in Africa and other poor countries. Bristol-Myers offered to sell its drug Zerit at $54 a year rather than $3,589.  Merck's Crixivan would be sold for $600 a year in Africa rather than $6,016. While this lowers the cost of the triple therapy “cocktails” (combination of several anti-retroviral drugs taken together) considerably —from about $10,000-$15,000 annually to about $500-$600—they are still too expensive for the vast majority of Africans, most of whom live on $1 a day. Generic versions of these drugs, on the other hand, cost half as much (and even less if produced domestically).

The big pharmaceutical companies reduced their prices not only to diffuse the growing protests but to prevent such generic drugs from breaking their monopoly and cutting into their profits. They could care less about saving lives. Just as they went after South Africa, they are now going after Brazil, which has one of the most successful AIDS treatment programs in the world. Producing generic AIDS medication domestically has helped cut Brazil’s AIDS death rate by 50%, allowing it to stabilize the epidemic.

Profits before people

What is most outrageous is that these companies are some of the richest, most powerful multinationals in the world.  In 1999, Glaxo-Wellcome made $2.19 billion in profits and Pfizer $2.77 billion.  Glaxo-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) is expected to make $5 billion in profits this year. 

Such greed in the face of a devastating health crisis is criminal. Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard economist who chairs a World Health Organization (WHO) advisory commission, said it well: "To me, it's as though the Black Death were going on in Europe in the 14th century, and China were sitting on a cure and saying, 'Why should we help?' We would consider it the crime of the millennium if that had happened, and yet we seem to be able to accommodate this without much trouble."

Our rulers might be accommodating it, but the pharmaceutical companies’ decision to drop the lawsuit against the South African government shows that thousands around the world are ready to fight such injustice. The South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) initiated the campaign against the lawsuit but thousands of activists and organizations around the world turned it into the Global Treatment Action Campaign (GTAC), hounding the pharmaceutical companies and their supporters in government and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

“Act Up! Fight back!”

Here in the US, groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)—which originally formed in 1987 to protest the exorbitant price Burroughs Wellcome was charging for AZT in the US—together with other AIDS and health activists in the Health Global Access Project (Health GAP) Coalition played a key role in building GTAC. Through teach-ins and demonstrations with anti-globalization activists they connected the issue of access to essential medicine to the movement to stop the Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. The FTAA, if passed, will make it more difficult for countries like Brazil to produce or import generic drugs.

Activists from ACT UP and Health GAP had already laid the groundwork for the campaign against the lawsuit during the 2000 Presidential election campaign. They followed Al Gore wherever they could, disrupting his lavish fundraisers, press conferences, and rallies to protest his support for the pharmaceutical industry in trade talks with South Africa. Both the New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer agreed that because of the protests “The Clinton administration reversed its policy of seeking sanctions against poor nations…And the Bush administration, in a move that surprised the advocates, has kept the Clinton policy in place” (AIDS Groups Revive a Fight and Themselves, NYT, 5/18/01, Stolberg).

As Eric Sawyer, one of the organizers of the anti-Gore rallies and founders of ACT UP, pointed out that through the actions,  "…the public again became engaged in the whole horror of the global AIDS crisis."

On March 5, major protests took place in several cities in South Africa, Canada, the UK, and the US and in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Philippines, and Thailand.

In Pretoria, South Africa the hundreds who had assembled outside the courtroom where the case was being heard swelled into thousands in a march to the US Embassy. In the US, there were protests in Boston, New York, Philly, SF, and, a week later, in Washington, DC.  On March 12, in Washington, DC 400 people marched from the South African Embassy to the offices of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the trade group for the industry, chanting “Pills cost pennies, Greed costs lives, Drop the lawsuit now” and “Medication for every nation”.  A month later, ACT UP Philadelphia and the Mobilization for Global Justice, the two groups who organized the March 12 action in Washington, DC, organized a second protest at the US Trade Representative’s office to stop the FTAA. About 500 people from Philadelphia and Washington, DC took part in a lively demonstration.

GTAC had a ripple effect across the country. On March 9, students, faculty, and researchers at Yale University launched a campaign of their own to demand that Yale, where research for one of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s AIDS drugs was conducted, pressure Bristol-Myers Squibb into lowering the price of its AIDS medication.  Six days later, Bristol-Myers Squibb announced that it would not enforce one of its patents for an AIDS drug in South Africa.
Students at the University of Minnesota have since started a similar campaign.


In an April 19 press release, the South African umbrella group TAC, declared victory: “This is a victory by ordinary people against unethical actions by multinational corporations. It has been shown that with a united global effort, concerned citizens can make a difference. Although this court case has dealt with South African legal issues, it is an example that people in all poor countries can defend their essential interests.” Oxfam, the anti-poverty group that played an important role in the campaign, declared that “South Africa is to the global pharmaceuticals industry what Vietnam was to the US military. Nothing will be quite the same again”.

Laura McTighe, an activist with ACT UP Philadelphia, echoed this sense of optimism and added that “This is one of the clearest examples of us activists' favorite phrase: ‘direct action gets the goods’. The decision to drop the lawsuit was not one made out of benevolence; it was made because all of the drug companies involved have been so shamed by international activists that they were forced to drop the lawsuit”.

We need to use this victory to send a strong message to the greedy corporations that we will not allow them to put their profits before the lives of the millions who die from HIV/AIDS every year because they can’t afford the medication that could allow them to live longer, healthier lives.

Join Health GAP, ACT UP, and other global justice activists on June 23, 2001 in New York City to demand more funding for the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients from the US government and other wealthy nations.