Business Day, 17 October 2002, HIV/Aids Activists' Talk With Zuma Productive'

By Tamar Kahn, Science And Education Correspondent

The first signs of a thaw in relations between state and AIDS activists came yesterday as Deputy President Jacob Zuma and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) representatives said they had met face to face for the first time on Tuesday.

While the activists may not yet be home and dry in their long-running campaign to persuade government to provide antiretroviral medicines to HIV-positive patients in the public sector, a joint statement released yesterday indicated the deputy president wants to resolve several key HIV/AIDS issues.

In addition to an "extensive" discussion on TAC's call for government to implement a national treatment plan which would include provision of antiretrovirals by World AIDS day on December 1, the two parties discussed the controversy relating to the disbursal of grants from the United Nations Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and the restructuring of the SA National AIDS Council (Sanac).

The as-yet unresolved row over the Global Fund centres on whether national government can pool its $93m grant with the $72m grant made to KwaZulu-Natal and redistribute the funds. Sanac has been criticised by a range of AIDS organisations, which accuse it of failing to represent the interests of people living with HIV/AIDS, and lacking adequate representation from civil society and business.

Zuma, accompanied by health directorgeneral Ayanda Ntsaluba, signalled the importance of the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) process under way to develop a "framework agreement" for a national HIV/AIDS treatment plan, and agreed that it should be presented to Sanac.

Nedlac constituted a special AIDS task team to develop this framework agreement last month, in a move many observers believed might provide an opening for people within government who supported the provision of antiretrovirals.

TAC secretary Mark Heywood des- cribed the meeting at the Cape Town presidential residence of Tuynhuys as "productive", stressing it was the first time AIDS activists had met with a representative from the presidency.

"Our sense was that Jacob Zuma wanted to collaborate on key issues, and endorsed the Nedlac process," said Heywood. He said Zuma's only apparent concern was that the time frames presented by TAC might not be feasible.

Referring to government's recent Uturn on its stance on the harmful effects of antiretrovirals, Heywood said the meeting was an indication of the "winds of change" blowing through the corridors of power.