Taking it to the Ground – the AC and its Affiliates
Supreme Court Judge Professor Edwin Cameron and a group of HIV specialists and academics established the AIDS Consortium (AC) in 1992 as a project at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of the Witwatersrand. At the time it was a very white, academic initiative with a strong policy focus.
The objective of the consortium was to promote a non-discriminatory response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic based on people's basic human rights as enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. This remains the focus today.
The organisation’s founding document, the HIV/AIDS Charter, sets out the basic human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and is still considered a significant advancement of human rights within the international legal field.
Reaching out into the Community
In 1995/96 the AC began to integrate its activities into the township communities. Most of its focus was located in informal settlements, via interactions with community organisations (CBOs) that were based there. These CBOs became regional affiliates, with the AC in Braamfontein acting as a central coordinating body. It was during this time that Morna Cornell, the first Executive Director of AC, was able to implement the necessary infrastructure and systems, which are still used by the AC today.
At its first AGM in 1998, the AC was established as an independent NGO located in Braamfontein. During this AGM, 225 members ratified the constitution. An issue of concern at the time was the fact that the AC was both a voluntary association (VA) and a Section 21 company, which impacted on the effectiveness of the organisation. However, in 2004 the AC dissolved the VA but retained its registration as a Section 21 company and is now governed by a Memorandum and Articles of Association.
The process of transition to a purely not-for profit company was extremely delicate, requiring extensive consultation with the many affiliate groups who were wary of having their influence diluted by the new structures. Fortunately, the outcome has been extremely positive.
The AC currently operates as a membership-based organisation that brings together a network of over 1000 community based service organisations and individuals who devote their time to addressing the AIDS pandemic in southern Africa.
Susie Clark, HIV/AIDS Activist
Susie Clark, Acting Executive Director of the AIDS Consortium, originally hails from the United Kingdom and has been in South Africa for 5 years. She has a Degree in International Relations and a passion for democracy. Her studies brought her to South Africa, where she came face-to-face with the severity of the suffering here and the impact of poverty on exacerbating the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In her opinion, the key development challenges facing South Africa today are poverty, lack of access to essential services, lack of transparency, corruption, lack of ethics, divided sectors and access to funding.
An ardent campaigner for human rights and advocate for the free dissemination of information, Susie initially spent 3 years working as an information coordinator at Lifeline. In 2004 she was a member of the Special General Committee of the AC, advising on governance issues.
It was during this time that she realised that the AC had a significant role to play within South African civil society and that it needed to advocate more vigorously on behalf of community-based AIDS organisations. When an opportunity arose towards the end of 2004 to work full-time at the AC, she jumped at it, seeing it as a chance to roll up her sleeves and work towards strengthening the infrastructure of the AC.
Susie notes that, since 2004, she has seen the AC enter an exciting period of renewal, which has been hugely challenging on a daily basis, given the fact that, in the same way that the community needs to ensure that basic essential needs are met, the AC staff has a commitment to meeting the needs of its affiliates, who can be very demanding.
Affiliate Engagement Programme
The challenge for 2005 was for the AC to engage with affiliates in order to align with their needs. With a staff complement of 11 people and an annual budget of R7 million, the AC team is constantly stretched to capacity in its efforts to ensure that the numerous programmes currently underway are implemented effectively.
Frequent, monthly consultations take place with various committees within the AC structures and these allow for constant engagement and regular report-backs to the affiliates, two of whom are represented on the board. An AC newsletter is distributed quarterly as part of the communication strategy.
The restructuring and consolidation that took place during 2004 saw an explosion of new programmes during 2005, much to the delight of Susie herself, who thrives on designing and implementing new initiatives.Susie observes that she prefers to do this after extensive consultation with the community, during which time she is able to promote dialogue around issues of democracy and human rights.
Activities in 2005
During 2005 over one million items of information were disseminated in the target areas of Limpopo and Gauteng. In addition, the AC was involved in an extensive capacity building programme in Gauteng in order to strengthen community based organisations and assist them with further implementation of projects.
Further one-day workshops on project management and financial management were provided along with information sessions, which were initiated in order to encourage live discussion between the community and NGOs.
In addition to these more formal initiatives, the AC is also involved in mobilizing the community. This includes protest action such as picketing against the activities of the Dr Rath Foundation as well as a march to the Gauteng legislature to raise concerns about the role of poverty in relation to HIV/AIDS and gender violence.
Plans for 2006
This year sees the AC conducting a strategic review of its activities and gathering feedback from affiliates, staff and the community to find out if specific needs have been met and what impact the organisation has had thus far.
Most reassuring for the AC was the audit that was conducted by an external consultancy in 2005, which confirmed that the organisation is efficient and transparent and functions effectively. The AC prides itself in the fact that it is a learning organisation and that honesty is needed to ensure that its activities are relevant.
In this regard, Susie observes that the pandemic is swift and that the needs of people are changing over the years. As a result the various programmes and strategies must adapt and respond proactively to ensure that their activities are relevant to their constituency. From this perspective, a lack of honesty on the part of any NGO could have devastating consequences for the community.
Whilst civil society’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been admirable, Susie argues that there is a need for a common goal across all NGOs to ensure that HIV/AIDS does not become another “business” for development opportunitists, as this diminishes the underlying fact that other human rights are often the causal factor for the expansion of the pandemic.
Activities in 2006 involve an expanded focus to include Mpumalanga, using similar approaches to the ones for the Limpopo and Gauteng provinces. The recruitment and representivity of the various affiliates both nationally and regionally will also be prioritized as will the partnership with SAFAIDS, a Zimbabwe-based distribution centre. A new Executive Director is also expected to join the AC by April this year.
The AC aims to ensure that it is inclusive and open and is able to build the interests of the sector. However, Susie’s biggest bugbear is that the sector remains divided and is constantly competing for donor funding. Ideally, she would like the sector to make a concerted effort to collaborate. The funding pool is shrinking and funds don’t always reach CBOs where they are able to have the most impact.
The AC’s donors have been very generous and the AC is on record as being exceptionally ethical about the sourcing of funds. PEPFAR and the pharmaceutical companies are not currently considered appropriate choices, as the AC is not keen to be “held to ransom” to quote Susie.
Taking a Stand
Susie’s concern around the reality of peoples’ existence in squatter shacks is a theme she regularly returns to during the interview. She notes that the AC supports the anti-privatisation movement and that civil society’s job is to get government to step out of its ivory tower by breaking down barriers and raising awareness of human suffering.
This year Susie hopes to spend more time out in the community, interacting with people on the ground. This is the level of involvement she find most rewarding. She hopes for a time when the poorest of the poor are provided with an adequate safety net, which allows them to escape the harshness of their current reality.
In ten years time, she hopes to see the AC celebrating a cure for the HIV/AIDS virus and no prevalence rate. Ultimately, Susie and the AC want an end to the HIV pandemic and any stigma or discrimination associated with it.
- drafted by Diane Babak, Information Services Manager, SANGONeT.
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