Raging against the evil empire

AIDS ACTION recently staged a successful march in Durban against pharmaceutical company Merck over its part in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations Court action against the South African government. Pravasan Pillay, an AIDS ACTION activist, charts the genesis of the March Against Merck.

AIDS ACTION a loose coalition of progressive organizations and individuals recently staged a successful march against pharmaceutical company Merck over its part in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations Court action against the South African government. Pravasan Pillay, an AIDS ACTION activist, charts the genesis of the March Against Merck.

The recent march (29 March 2001) against pharmaceutical giant Merck was born out of the ashes of the poorly attended Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) march to the United States Embassy in Smith Street, Durban. This was about a month ago. The weather on the day was memorably hot. The two hundred odd people assembled there were sweaty and tired. But mostly they were tired. Marathon speeches by the likes of Kwa-Zulu Natal health minister Dr. Zweli Mkhise and various figures of officialdom had seen to that. Loud praises to absent leaders were sung. Old unrelated armed struggle slogans were chanted.

The anarchists in the sparse crowd were in visible pain. Posters expressing people's anger against the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Associations (P.M.A) decision to take the Government to court were used to shield eyes from the sun and to sit on. At the beginning of the march they were lofted high above the protestors heads. The politicians on a mandate to inspire had effectively pacified any anger and drained any energy that these committed marchers might have been imbued with.

When the U.S. Embassy representative eventually emerged from his imposing black-windowed air-conditioned building to receive the TAC memorandum he was greeted with marked docility. It was the Yankee's lucky day. A lone cry of: "Down with the U.S.A." was reciprocated with a barely audible murmur. It seemed that most of the marchers just wanted to get the whole affair over with. After the march groups of disillusioned activists milled around outside the Embassy amongst discarded posters and pamphlets trying to work out what went wrong and to graft a way forward. Most felt that this poor showing reflected badly on Durban's level of commitment to the struggle for affordable drug prices for HIV/AIDS patients and that putting on a strong march was especially important given the large shows of support and solidarity taking place in diverse locations like Mumbai, Paris, Sao Paulo, Bangkok, Washington, New York, Dakar, London, Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town.

A spontaneous decision was taken by mostly University of Durban-Westville staff and students to organize an HIV/AIDS march of their own. Several decisions and conditions were immediately set. Firstly it was decided that a university AIDS advocacy group be formed to deal with the logistics of arranging the march and to formulate and organize future action campaigns. Secondly it was decided that the target of the march should be one of the thirty-nine pharmaceutical companies that had brought the case against the South African Government. The close proximity of Merck to the university made it an ideal candidate. Later this decision to march on Merck was to prove justifiable on more than these simple grounds of accessible locale.

Lastly it was decided that although they obviously sided with the Government in the court action no politicians and more especially no health ministers would be invited to speak at the march. The following week a meeting was called to discuss the formation of the university AIDS advocacy group andpossible dates for the planned march. The e-mail announcing the meeting ended with a quote from the French novelist Victor Hugo. It read: "Nothing is quite so powerful as an idea whose time has come.".

Those who gathered for the meeting collectively represented the three major role-players at the university: the Combined Staff Association (COMSA), the Academic Staff Association (ASA), and the Students' Representative Council (SRC). Old apartheid struggle activists mixed, spoke, and exchanged ideas freely with younger versions of themselves united by a common hatred of market fundamentalism. Everybody had something to contribute. People had to shout to be heard. The radicals spoke about possible infiltration and occupation of Merck premises. The liberals spoke about the checks and balances of the march funding. The conservatives kept a surprisingly cool head.

But overall all three organizations agreed that the Court action against the Government was morally reprehensible and that quick, strong, and decisive action needed to be taken against those drug companies that put profits before the lives of people. By the end of the meeting the AIDS ACTION advocacy group was formed, a date for the march was set, and the dormant UDW struggle engine began to slowly roar to life again.

The three weeks leading up to the march were hectic for all people involved. Tough academic schedules prevented too many meetings from taking place. A plan was made. Massive cell-phone bills were ran up and large-scale e-debates took place. Family lives were put on hold. The logistics of planning the march also proved to be a daunting task. Permits were needed, routes had to be planned, and students and staff had to be informed and organized. Help was sought. Fazel Khan, a COMSA veteran and legendary mobilizer, stepped forward to show less experienced activists the way it was done. His eccentric methods were unfathomable at first but later it slowly dawned on most the AIDS ACTION activists that they had just received a three-week crash course on how to conduct a revolution.

Respected political scientist, Lubna Nadvi, and Yusuf Vawda, a dedicated TAC activist, bravely volunteered to sift through the miles of energy sapping red tape. Richard Pithouse, Durban's organizing philosopher and leading struggle chronicler, was to ensure that the march received appropriate press coverage. Indeed it was largely through Pithouse's ceaseless publicizing efforts that the march reached the magnitude it eventually did. The charismatic and principled SRC executive member, Bongani Mlambo, put all the available resources of the SRC at the disposal of AIDS ACTION. Exciting new struggle networks and methodologies were being forged as the days leading up to the march unfolded.

It was also becoming increasing apparent that the energy of the march could no longer be contained within the boundaries of the university. The list of progressive individuals that wanted to be part of the march against Merck grew longer every day. They included Fatima Meer, the celebrated human rights activist; Zackie Achmat, the national head of TAC; Trevor Ngwane, the noted Sowetan anti-globalisation activist; Ashwin Desai, the radical activist intellectual; Patrick Bond, South Africa's leading political economist; Promise Mthembu, the regional head of TAC; and Bishop Reuben Phillip. It was also announced that the mercurial Zackie Achmat, who has refused any drug treatment until it is available for all HIV/AIDS patients, would give a talk the day before the march on the way forward in the struggle to win affordable treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS. Some of the organizations that threw their support behind the march included: ActivAID, Mobilising Against Pharmaceuticals, Tekweni Eco-Peace Party, Agenda Feminist Media, and The Workers College. A proper and vibrant civil society movement was rapidly being born.

Getting funding for the printing of posters, t-shirts, and pamphlets as well as for the hiring of the buses was consuming much time and energy but fortunately a few days before the march Lubna Nadvi announced that the money from the university's AIDS fund had come through. It seemed that the final hurdle had been crossed. Or so the AIDS ACTION activists naively thought. On the morning of the 28th, a day before the planned march and the scheduled date of Zackie Achmat's talk at UDW, Merck began their counter-action cum dirty tricks campaign. Fazel Khan made the shocking announcement that the march could possibly be directed at the wrong company. He received this information courtesy of a high-ranking employee at the Merck branch that they had planned to march to. The employee claimed that his company, Merck (Pty) Ltd, had no influence or relation to Merck and Co. Inc, the American company which is party to the PMA Court action against the Government. The activists were devastated.

It was too late to apply for a permit to march to one of the eight other Court action drug companies that had offices in Durban. Panic set in. Company web-pages were pored over and frantic phone-calls were made to ascertain whether the employee's claim had any measure of truth in it. As far as the AIDS ACTION activists could gather he seemed to be telling the truth - Merck (Pty) Ltd was a separate and distinct company from Merck and Co. Inc. Talk of a march cancellation began to slowly circulate.

Eventually sanity set in and it was decided to seek out the advice of leading human rights lawyer, Heinrich Bomke, who was very familiar with the facts of the case. Within ten minutes of phoning him the activists received an e-mail from Bomke clarifying the issue once and for all. It turned out the while the employee was speaking the truth as far as Merck (Pty) Ltd not being a part of Merck and Co. Inc. was concerned he was nevertheless speaking utter nonsense with regard to Merck (Pty) Ltd. not being a part of the PMA Court action against the Government. Merck (Pty) Ltd. were the 13th applicant of the 39 drug companies taking action against the Government, Merck and Co. Inc. were the 38th applicant, and Merck KGAA, a German based company, were the 37th applicant. A jubilant and at the same time angry Khan phoned the Merck employee back and gently queried this slight oversight. The employee, realizing the game was up, even admitted to being in attendance at the first court case. The rules of engagement were now established and the march was still very much on. The mood at the university had grown militant and resolute: Merck (Pty) Ltd., Merck KGAA, or whatever else they called themselves were going down.

Later on in the day a visibly tired Zackie Achmat still managed to give a rousing speech to the more than 350 activists from various different organizations that had gathered in anticipation of the march. A resolution to be handed to Merck the next day was passed by all in attendance. It demanded that Merck withdraw their support for the Pharmaceutical Manufactures Association's legal challenge to the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act of 1997, lower their prices on all essential drugs to affordable levels, allow all poor countries to manufacture generic HIV/AIDS drugs, and demonstrate transparency in their pricing policies. The resolution also stated that AIDS ACTION fully support and commit to TAC in its struggle for full access to treatment for all. The slogan of the march was to be: "People before Profits". Zackie Achmat spent his few remaining minutes of free time after his speech - he was due to conduct an AIDS workshop - speaking individually to students. The next morning brought with it another shock. Initially AIDS ACTION had decided to march on Merck because of its ideal location and the fact that it is one of the most powerful and influential pharmaceutical companies of the 39 applicants but with the morning of the march came a more pressing reason. Merck were now threatening legal action against the Brazilian government over its decision to import the generic drug, Efavirenz, from India.

Merck claim that the Brazilian state-owned pharmaceutical laboratory, Far-Manguinhos, in doing so has violated its patent on the drug known as Stocrin. Brazil is the one developing country that is able to provide life saving AIDS medicines to all its people for free. In other developing countries these medicines cost up to R100 000 per person per year. Brazil has achieved this by manufacturing generic versions of these medicines. It now legally manufactures eight of the twelve drugs used in AIDS treatment cocktails. The generic Efavirenz is used in only a relatively small number of cases yet it consumes more than ten percent of Brazil's $305 million AIDS drug budget. The Brazilian model has given hope to millions of people living with AIDS in the developing world. It is clear that Merck wished to quash this hope. This action has made them the enemy of people all over the world. The symbolism of the march against Merck immediately took on immense proportions.

At around noon protesters began to gather around the university quad. The mood was happy and determined. The diversity of people and organizations was amazing to see. As well as staff, both academic and technical, and students from the University of Durban-Westville there was also a sizable contingent of staff and students from the University of Natal and the Natal Technikon. There was also a strong union, anarchist, and feminist presence. The weather was sweltering even for Durban. Large banners were being spray-painted all over the quad. Crowds gathered around the painters suggesting slogans and querying the nature of the protest.

One read: "Merck! Hands of Brazil!". The word had spread quickly. The hurriedly painted banner was the first official protest against Merck's threatened Court action against the Brazilian government. Zackie Achmat spoke to students in the quad informing them about the battle for affordable treatment. People stopped and listened carefully. March marshals handed out t-shirts with the "People before Profits" slogan on it but most protesters clamored for the t-shirts with the "HIV Positive" slogan on it. Achmat who was wearing his own TAC "HIV Positive" t-shirt asked the marshals for one of these only to surrender it a few minutes later to a pleading female protestor. He was clearly amazed at the sight. The stigma and alienation of the virus was suddenly giving way to the idea of it being a collective problem that could only be solved by a collective effort by the multitude. At the same time academics and politicians around the country were attending conferences and seminars on the African Renaissance dressed in "traditional" regalia. There obviously existed a conflict between what the theoreticians and what the multitude thought the garb of the renaissance should consist of. Later Achmat suggested that the university print each student and staff member one of the t-shirts. When the buses taking the protestors to the march were eventually filled to the point of over-flowing they numbered five while the number of private vehicles ferrying people to the march numbered just over twenty. The well over 700 people participating in the march against Merck had, given the short period they had to arrange it, exceeded the AIDS ACTION activist's wildest predictions but perhaps what pleased them the most was the diversity and militant mood of the people. Indeed many people commented on the similarities in composition to last years successful 5000 strong TAC Global March For Access To HIV/AIDS Treatment that was held in Durban to coincide with the International AIDS conference.

Those protesters who had decided to take the bus to the march were rewarded with righteous Zulu folk songs, impromptu toyi-toyi demonstrations, manifesto and poetry readings, and brief lessons in anarchism. The highly confined spaces ensured that everybody was sweaty but not a single soul complained or mentioned it. Talk of confronting the evil Empire abounded. One particularly sweat-drenched chap invoked the name of Sub-Commandant Marcos and his band of Zapatistas who were at the very same moment engaged in their own battle against neo-liberalism in the heart of Mexico City. A cry of "Basta! - Enough!" rang through the buses. At the start of Essex Terrace the protesters disembarked from the buses and vehicles and gathered under the watchful eye of the police to begin the long and much anticipated march to Merck. They were joined by children and volunteers from the God's Golden Acre home for AIDS orphans. Since the walk was too long for most of the younger orphans to make on their own they were carried in the arms of protesters.

The protesters, both young and old, then began the long toyi-toyi up the hill to Merck's offices. Their energy-levels, despite the tremendous heat, did-not once falter. A lady along the way had to restraint her large dog from barking and from trying to attack the protesters. She received a roar of approval from a section of the march when she scolded it by telling it: "Don't bark at them boy. They're not the crooks. They're going to get the real crooks.". Employees of Merck gathered on balconies and looked out of windows as the protestors assembled outside of their company premises. There was a strong press presence. The chairs of the march were Richard Pithouse and Bongani Mlambo. The other speakers included Zackie Achmat, Fatima Meer, Patrick Bond, Bishop Reuben Phillip, Trevor Ngwane, Ori Moloi, and Ashwin Desai. Every one of the speakers spoke for a very short time. No praises to the Government were sung. The plain facts of the case were clearly and concisely stated and all the speakers agreed that this was just the beginning and that they wouldn't rest until the struggle for affordable treatment had been won. A fiery Pithouse, invoking Marx's 11th Theses on Feuerbach, drew a distinction between academics and intellectuals. He said that while not all intellectuals were academics most academics were not intellectuals. His emphasis on praxis drew roars of approval from students and lecturers who knew only too well the follies and vanities of academic life.

Bond recalled marching twenty years ago to the Merck offices in America and expressed happiness that the movement was being resurrected. He introduced the pre-dominantly South African protesters to some of the catchy struggle slogans used by American protesters. By the end of his speech most of the protesters had dropped the familiar chant of "Viva!" for Bond's suggestion of "Hey Ho!". The good-natured refrain continued for the rest of the march and much of the next day. The protesters were proving to be very receptive to new ideas. Bishop Phillip said that the struggle against AIDS was about the preservation of life and that during the apartheid struggle many people sacrificed their lives for justice for all the people. He added that the new struggle was against a disease that was destroying our people. Ashwin Desai was introduced to the protesters to great cheers. Older student protesters recalled Desai's instrumental role in the attempted coup, dubbed "Operation Dislodge", of the University of Durban-Westville's management that took place about six years ago. He is to this day banned from entering UDW property. Desai did-not need a microphone to be heard. He raised the issue of protest marches that were becoming more and more passive. He added that instead of standing outside of evil places we should be burning them down and that instead of handing over memorandums we should be setting them alight. This pronouncement was also meet with militant cheers.

Ludna Nadvi then read out the resolution passed at Zackie Achmat's talk the previous day to Merck MD, Jacob Godwin, before it was handed over to him by one of the AIDS orphans from the God's Golden Acre home. Godwin wished to speak. He was faced with placards and banners saying, "People Before Profits", "America Stop Killing Us", "Affordable Treatment For All, Not Super Profits For A Few", "Globalization Ruins The Poor", and "No Patience With Patents". He said that he would present a memorandum justifying Merck's price structure for AIDS drugs. This was met with loud boo's, curses, and shouts of "shaya". The marchers turned their back on him. On the buses back to the university the mood was jubilant. The march had been a huge success and the seeds of a larger social movement had been sown.

Later on back at the university two sweaty and untidy looking marchers were confronted by an academic looking resplendent in his fine tweed jacket. He wanted to know where they had been. They told him. He replied that they had missed a very important seminar on the importance of civil society. Much laughter had to be suppressed. The next day an article covering the march appeared in one of the morning papers. Merck called up the journalist concerned and threatened him with legal action over inaccuracies in the story. The well-worn Merck (Pty) Ltd. is not Merck and Co. Inc. gambit was being used again. The quick-witted journalist replied that if Merck were so concerned about patents why weren't they worried about another company using their name. The energy generated by the march was rapidly spreading. Victory was in sight.

Pravasan Pillay is a freelance journalist and lectures Political Philosophy at the University of Durban-Westville (South Africa).
Durban, April 2nd, 2001