58 minutes, 2001, South Africa Producer/Director: Jack Lewis
ABOUT THE FILM
With one in five South Africans infected with the AIDS virus and one in four pregnant South African women HIV+, the AIDS epidemic is having a devastating impact on the new South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has labeled the crisis, ‘the new apartheid’. This new activist documentary introduces audiences to the Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa’s inspiring grassroots AIDS organization, leading the fight against the greed of international pharmaceutical companies and the inaction of the South African government.
The end of apartheid and the historic inauguration of President Nelson Mandela in 1994 brought on euphoria, but in the background, AIDS was developing into a national emergency. The film presents the early missteps by government health officials, which included bankrolling the extravagant musical theater production Sarafina 2 from limited AIDS education funds and giving credence to the claim that the industrial solvent Virodene was a ‘cure’ for AIDS. Now 160 infants are born with HIV each day which could be avoided by making AZT available through public health clinics to all HIV+ pregnant mothers. The government refuses, claiming that the medication is ineffective and toxic. The documentary follows the controversial statements made by current President Thabo Mbeki which advance doubts that HIV is the cause of AIDS.
Even though the infection rate is growing, AIDS still carries a social stigma. So much so that activist Gugu Dlamini was stoned to death in 1998 for revealing her HIV+ status. A part of the ability to create a movement on behalf of people with HIV is acknowledging and honoring them; the documentary covers memorials for activists such as Simon Tseko Nkoli and Christopher Moraka and presentations by Supreme Court Justice Edwin Cameron.
Just as significant as confronting the South African government on its AIDS policies is the Treatment Action Campaign’s work challenging pharmaceutical companies for charging high prices for AIDS drugs which make them unaffordable for the world’s poorer people and governments. In fact, the title Patient Abuse is a play on words referring to how pharmaceutical companies guard ‘patents’ to prevent governments from producing cheaper generic drugs. The Treatment Action Campaign was successful in getting the companies to drop their suit against the South African government for wanting to explore producing affordable drugs - a rare victory for the world’s poor over multinational corporations.
The documentary highlights the efforts of Zackie Achmat, the dynamic chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign. Achmat is a former anti-apartheid activist and gay rights campaigner who is HIV+ but has vowed to refuse anti-retroviral medications until they are available to all through public health clinics. The Treatment Action Campaign embodies the spirit of the anti-apartheid movement by uniting community activists, trade unionists and church groups.