Information Technology and the Treatment Action Campaign: successes and pitfalls

Nathan Geffen.

Nathan Geffen

18 July 2012

On 10 December 1998, about 10 people picketed outside St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town. They demanded that the state roll out a programme to reduce the risk of pregnant women transmitting HIV to their infants and for drug companies to lower their HIV medicine prices. This marked the modest beginning of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

On 9 July 2000, 5,000 people marched under TAC’s banner to the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Durban. In a bit more than 18 months, TAC had grown into a substantial movement. It would go on to have even bigger marches, culminating in close to 15,000 people marching to Parliament on 14 February 2003, calling on the state to develop a plan to treat people with HIV.

Information Communication Technology (ICT) played an important part in TAC’s growth into a serious movement.

In early 2000, TAC didn’t have a proper website (it was a piggy-backed webpage hosted by another organisation) and it had no electronic newsletter. This was the case for most activist organisations in South Africa at the time.

So we set up an extremely simple website, but by the standards of the day, any website was an achievement. It is also possible we pioneered activist email newsletters in South Africa, which to this day is still called the TAC Electronic Newsletter. For it’s first couple of years the newsletter was run from a script on a computer in my office in the University of Cape Town’s Computer Science department. There was no automatic subscription mechanism; I manually added and deleted email addresses to the script, which was also responsible for handling my personal email; it was all very homemade, clunky and not always reliable. But it worked, most of the time. Even the ANC electronic newsletter only started in 2001, some time after TAC’s.

The TAC website in January 2001. An ugly duckling that never quite became a swan. Source:

Because we were the only or one of the only organisations doing this at the time, the media learned about us and picked up our stories. The electronic newsletter helped spur intense media coverage on TAC. This made a huge difference to public awareness of our campaigns.

But it also allowed activists overseas, who were quite immersed in the Internet and email already, to learn more about TAC and our day-to-day activities. The electronic newsletter together with email helped us to organise the 9 July 2000 march under the banner of multiple organisations and call it a Global march, which it truly was because a large contingent of foreign activists took part in it and helped organise it.

March 2001 brought an even more effective use of ICT activism. Our website was the organising board for a global day of action against the pharmaceutical industry. Activist groups from around the world heeded our call to protest the approximately 40 pharmaceutical companies that had taken the South African government to court because of its amendments to the Medicines Act. Those events were first advertised on our website and our electronic newsletter and then once the events took place, photos and descriptions of them were put on the website and newsletter. Today that seems obvious; what effective organisation would not do that? But a decade ago that was unusual and exciting. The global pressure on the pharmaceutical industry was immense and within weeks it capitulated and withdrew its litigation. This level of global activist organising would have been impossible without websites, email and news lists.

Perhaps the most important part of TAC’s work has been its treatment literacy campaign. In this programme, branch members based in townships and, to a lesser extent, rural areas learn about HIV treatment and prevention, as well as complex political issues like drug patents. Now if for a moment we pretend that TAC’s work all took place in the late 80s or even mid-90s, I can’t see how the treatment literacy programme would have achieved anything close to what it did. It’s not that TAC’s rank and file members had access to ICT; unfortunately in the early 2000s few did and even today, few effectively use the Internet.

But what the Internet has given us are resources like the United States National Library of Medicine’s Pubmed, as well as immediate knowledge of new scientific developments from sources like the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine. It is true that the Lancet and NEJM existed long before the Internet was popularised, but the paper editions are expensive. Now it is relatively simple for ordinary people —who are unable to access expensive journals— to exchange scientific papers over the Internet, as we have done since the early 2000s. (It is still not simple enough and still too expensive because not enough journals are open access, including the Lancet and NEJM.) This empowered a small subset of the organisation to be able to stay abreast of developments in HIV science, but then use that knowledge to inform the branch members about major developments and update our treatment literacy curriculum. Also, ICT helped us to communicate daily with highly treatment literate activists in the UK and US, which made a big difference to our ability to learn new developments in HIV. Developments in ICT have massively reduced the cost and complexity of international communication. The importance of that in our own HIV education was immense.

That’s the success story. But there are pitfalls too.

There’s no doubt about the value of the big social media applications —Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Whatsapp and Mxit— to help political mobilisation. Some of these played a significant role in the Arab revolutions. And let’s not forget about Wikileaks. Also, the Social Justice Coalition, in Cape Town, is exploring ways to use Twitter to improve the City’s service delivery in poor areas. They’re already having some success with this. Social media has incredible potential.

So what are the problems? There are several:

"Equal Treatment"
Equal Treatment, TAC’s print magazine, is still the organisation’s main communication to its membership.

ICT has revolutionised the world and it has helped people who struggle for human rights. It’s a great thing. But it is not an easy monster to deal with.

Geffen is the editor of GroundUp. He used to work for TAC and still sits on the organisation’s board. This is an edited version of a talk he delivered to the South African Sociological Association conference at the University of Cape Town in July 2012.