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 March on Merck

With the highest number of HIV infections in the world, by 2010 the life expectancy in South Africa will drop to 36. South African activists are becoming increasingly vocal in demanding rights and equitable access to HIV/AIDS treatment. Local activist Richard Pithouse describes those who joined the 2000 Global March for Access as, “the excited group of nuns, drag queens, sangomas [traditional healers], doctors, communists, teenage punks on skate boards, Pan-Africanists, gay activists, unionists, students and nurses.”

But global patent rights - being enforced by the World Trade Organisation - on essential medicines such as AIDS drugs price them way out of reach of poor countries. Last year the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers took the South African government to court for importing generic AIDS drugs - thus, they argued, breaking patents held by multinational corporations. An increasingly mobilized grassroots movement in South Africa is linking up to the international movement challenging the power of transnational capital. This is the story of one of its beginnings.

 

The march on March 29th 2001 against pharmaceutical giant Merck was Durban’s commitment to the struggle for affordable drug prices for HIV/AIDS patients, inspired and strengthened by the large shows of support and solidarity taking place in diverse locations like Mumbai, Paris, São Paulo, Bangkok, Washington, New York, Dakar, London, Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town .

University of Durban-Westville staff and students held a meeting and decided to target Merck, one of the thirty-nine pharmaceutical companies that had brought the case against the South African Government. It was also decided that no politicians - and especially no health ministers - would be invited to speak at the march. (At a previous such march, marathon speeches by the likes of Kwa-Zulu Natal health minister Dr. Zweli Mkhise and various figures of officialdom had put the anarchists present into visible pain).

At the meeting old apartheid - struggle activists mixed, spoke, and exchanged ideas freely with younger versions of themselves, united by a common hatred of market fundamentalism. Every body 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 they agreed that the court action against the South African government was morally reprehensible and that quick, strong, and decisive action needed to be taken against those drug companies that put profits be fore 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 university struggle engine began to slowly roar to life again.

Fazel Khan, a COMSA [Combined Staff Association -a militant independent union] 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.

Then, a day be fore the planned march, Merck began their dirty tricks campaign. A high-ranking Merck employee claimed that his company, Merck (Pty) Ltd, had no relation to Merck and Co. Inc, the US-owned company party to the PMA Court action against the government. Panic set in. Company web pages were pored over and frantic phone calls were made. Eventually it was discovered that Merck (Pty) Ltd. was indeed separate from Merck and Co. Inc, but it was nevertheless also one of the 39 drug companies taking action against the government. When confronted, the Merck employee admitted to being in attendance at the first court case. The rules of engagement were now established. The mood at the university had grown militant and resolute: Merck was going down.

That afternoon, the mercurial AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, who has refused any drug treatment until it is available for all HIV/AIDS patients, gave a talk on the way forward in the struggle to win affordable treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS. Visibly tired, he still managed to give a rousing speech to activists that had gathered in anticipation of the march. They unanimously passed a resolution to be handed to Merck the next day demanding that it withdraw its support for the Pharmaceutical Manufactures Association’s legal challenge, 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 supported the struggle for full access to treatment for all. The slogan of the march was: “People be fore Profits.”

The morning of the march, AIDS Action heard that Merck was now threatening legal action against the Brazilian government over its decision to import the generic drug, Efavirenz, from India. Merck claims 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 [US$ 39,000] per person per year. Brazil has achieved this by manufacturing generic, non-patented, versions of these medicines. It now legally manufactures eight of the twelve drugs used in AIDS treatment cocktails. In this way Brazil has managed in four years to cut its AIDS deaths in half, giving hope to millions of people living with AIDS in the developing world. It is clear that Merck wished to quash this hope. The symbolism of the march against Merck was taking on immense proportions .

At around noon, happy and determined protesters began to gather around the university quad. As well as university staff and students 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 off Brazil!” The word had spread quickly.

As Zackie Achmat spoke to students in the quad a bout the battle for affordable treatment, activists handed out t-shirts with the “People be fore Profits” slogan on it. But most protesters clamoured for the t-shirts with the “HIV Positive” emblazoned on them. Achmat had his own t-shirt declaring, “HIV Positive” - to his amazement he surrendered it a few minutes later to a pleading female protester. In May 1998 a woman in Durban, South Africa, was stoned to death after she revealed she was HIV positive. But 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 was clearly a conflict between what the theoreticians and what the multitude thought the garb of the renaissance should be. Later Achmat suggested that the university print each student and staff member one of the t-shirts. 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.

Protesters on the buses were rewarded with righteous Zulu folk songs, impromptu toyi-toyi (ritual dance of protest) demonstrations, manifesto and poetry readings, and brief lessons in anarchism. The highly confined spaces ensured that every body 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 Subcomandante Marcos and his band of Zapatistas who were at the very same moment engaged in their own battle against neoliberalism in the heart of Mexico City. A cry of “!Basta! - Enough!” rang through the buses.

Under the watchful eye of the police the protesters began the long 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.

“South Africa is in the hands of global capital. That is why it can’t meet the legitimate demands of its people.”
- George Soros financial speculator

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 falter. A woman along the way had to restrain 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.” Merck employees gathered on balconies and looked out of windows as the protesters assembled outside of their company premises.

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.

Patrick Bond recalled marching twenty years ago to the Merck offices in America and expressed happiness that the movement was be i n g resurrected. He introduced the South African protesters to some of the struggle slogans used by US protesters during the WTO shutdown. 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 72 the next day. The protesters were proving to be very receptive to new ideas. Bishop Phillip said 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 met with militant cheers.

“The Anti capitalists have been winning the battle of ideas - despite having no ideas worthy of its name”
the Economists Magazine forecast for the world in 2001.

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,” “Globalisation 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 a bout another company using their name? The energy generated by the march was rapidly spreading. Victory was in sight.

- Pravasan Pillay

 

In a March 2nd 2001 press release entitled, “Activists’ Demonstrations at the Offices of Major pharmaceutical companies are not the way to help patients in developing countries,” the President of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Associations (IFPMA) said:
“We very much regret such attacks against research-based pharmaceutical companies, and believe all efforts should be directed towards solving the problems of sufferers instead of profile-raising efforts by parties who are not in the best position to contribute to alleviating the terrible situation of those affected. We fail to understand the motives of some AIDS activists... We are concerned that for some there is another, ideologically based, agenda - i.e., to discourage the morale of the research base of pharmaceutical companies.”