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Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at a SANAC Breakfast Meeting, held at Webber Wentzel, 13 March 2020

Programme Director, Ms Letsike
The Chairperson of the SANAC Trust, Dr Omar
The CEO of the SANAC Trust, Dr Buthelezi
Justice Edwin Cameron,
The directors and staff of Webber Wentzel,
Members of the legal profession,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning, I am honoured to be speaking at this breakfast meeting on human rights, especially as we are celebrating Human Rights Month.

As we reflect on the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa, we also reflect on our human rights successes and take stock of the remaining challenges we face as a country.

And there has been notable progress when it comes to health care and life expectancy.

HIV/AIDS was felt across all regions of the world, but its most notable impact on life expectancy was in sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to a combination of anti-retroviral therapy, treatment and education on prevention global deaths from Aids-related illness have halved in the last decade alone - from 2 million per year down to 1 million.

Life expectancy rates have since begun to recover.

As you know, the World Health Organization divides the world into six different regions for purposes of reporting and analysis.

According to the WHO, global life expectancy at birth in 2016 was 72 years, ranging from 61.2 years in its African Region to 77.5 years in it Europe Region.  

Women live longer than men all around the world. The gap in life expectancy between the sexes was 4.3 years in 2000 and had remained almost the same by 2016.

Global average life expectancy increased by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016, the fastest increase since the 1960s. Those gains reverse declines during the 1990s, when life expectancy fell in Africa because of HIV/AIDS, and in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The 2000-2016 increase was greatest in the WHO African Region, where life expectancy increased by 10 years - driven mainly by improvements in child survival and access to anti-retrovirals for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

In South Africa, health status indicators have improved across our entire demographic.

Maternal, infant and under-5 mortality rates have decreased significantly - The maternal mortality ratio decreased from 176 per 100 000 in 2008–2010 to 138 per 100 000 in 2014–2016.

Overall, the total life expectancy of South Africans increased from 54 years in 2005 to 64.2 years in 2018 – a net gain of 10 years.

Access to primary healthcare services has also expanded. The number of people receiving primary healthcare services has increased from 67 million in 1998 to 128 million in 2018.

The number of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy in the public health sector grew exponentially, from 45 500 in 2004, when the treatment was first added to the country’s response to HIV/AIDS, to over 4.7 million people in 2019. This has contributed to the increased longevity of people living with HIV/AIDS.

But there is still much to be done.

This year we commemorate Human Rights Month under the theme:  “The year of unity, socio-economic renewal and nation-building.”

Our Constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. The Constitution embodies rights which guarantee the freedom, equality and human dignity of all, despite the socio- economic status, race or gender of any person. 

But the world we live in is often dramatically different from the world that the Constitution envisions.

SANAC’s Legal and Human Rights Technical Task Team, which I co-chair, frequently looks at human rights-related barriers for government, policy makers, service providers and communities and the scaling up of programmes to reduce human rights-related barriers to HIV and TB services.  

A while ago we looked at the finding of a baseline assessment which was done by the Global Fund and the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal.  

The rreport found that HIV-related stigma and discrimination in a variety forms and with different impacts against people living with HIV and other key and vulnerable populations, remain a dominant barrier for access and uptake of HIV services, with just over one-third of respondents (36%) having experienced some form of stigma in either their personal and social environments.

We live in a world which discriminates – on a number of different grounds such as race, gender, age, disability, HIV and TB status, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.

We have made tremendous gains in reducing new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS, but still certain key and vulnerable populations, such as women, young people, sex workers, people who use drugs, transgender people, prisoners, gay men and men who have sex with men – are at a higher risk of HIV exposure and are still in danger of being “left behind” in the responses to HIV and TB.

They continue to face disproportionately higher risk of HIV infection, yet struggle to access equitable, appropriate and effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services. 

Many of them have reported:

 

This is why SANAC developed a comprehensive Human Rights Plan that provides clear guidance and strategic direction linked to interventions and outcomes. 

We launched the three-year Human Rights Plan at the Gugu Dlamini Memorial Park in Durban in June last year.

For those who don’t know Gugu’s story, in 1998 Gugu – who was from KwaMashu - found that the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS made people’s suffering worse and she wanted to be a voice for those living with HIV/AIDS.  She joined the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) and announced to the press that she was living with AIDS.

Days after the press conference, on 14 December 1998, several local men harassed her, attacked her, followed her home and stoned her to death.

Her death was an example of the depth of HIV stigma in South Africa at the time.

I know that Gugu’s story also had a big influence on the life of Justice Cameron. He made headlines in 1999 when he announced that he had been living with HIV for twelve years. He was one of the first high profile people to publicly disclose their status.

Justice Cameron has been active in the fight against HIV/AIDS for  a significant part of his life. While serving as a human rights lawyer at the Wits’ Centre for Applied Legal Studies, he co-drafted the Charter of Rights on AIDS and HIV, co-founded the AIDS Consortium and founded the AIDS Law Project.

President Mandela was right when he referred to Justice Cameron as “one of South Africa’s new heroes.”

We all remember how, at the time, HIV/AIDS was seen by many as a death sentence. Today, thankfully, we know that it is not the case.

South Africa has come a long way over the past two decades in the fight for human rights for all in our country and we have also seen a major improvement in the overall management of HIV/AIDS.

Yet, although South Africa is recognised globally for its response and position to human rights, there are still important gaps to close with respect to the full implementation of the human rights agenda, particularly the rights of people living with HIV and TB and certain key and vulnerable populations.

We need to ensure the acceleration, translation and implementation of the commitments in the plan.

We need to ensure that key and vulnerable populations are no longer alienated and discriminated against.

Addressing these legal, policy and social barriers and reducing the stigma and discrimination of key and vulnerable populations requires concerted action from government, civil society, the private sector, communities and development partners.

We need to ensure the presence of an enabling legal and policy environment to promote equitable access to services and to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. 

Adopting such a human rights approach to HIV and TB, specifically for key and vulnerable populations, not only ensures the protection of their rights but it is also in the public interest as the national and global targets of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 simply can’t be achieved if these communities are left behind.

Programme Director,

Now, more than ever before, there are opportunities to re-energise and scale up our efforts to remove these barriers. 

Throughout South Africa, stakeholders are putting in place bold strategies on human rights, as well as the interventions necessary to make a difference at national level.

Over the past few years we have been seeing non-government organisations and community based organisations such as the National Association of People Living with HIV and TB (NAPWA), Sisonke and the South Africa Network of People Who Use Drugs (SANPUD) mobilising communities across South Africa to strive for rights based approaches for communities to know their rights. 

It is vital that we build and expand institutional mechanisms, local and national, to tackle these challenges, so that key and vulnerable populations are assured of a rights-based approach. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

We want to use this opportunity not only to share the human rights plan, but also to engage with the legal fraternity to hear what role they can play within a wider human rights response. How can we partner with you to ensure that we bring hope to those who may have no other recourse to legal assistance?  

How can we work with the legal profession to help people know what their human rights are and where to go when these rights are infringed?

We need to work together to find new ways to support key and vulnerable populations.  This would include persons who often face discrimination in the workplace and other settings.

As legal practitioners there is a lot we can do. We can all volunteer our professional services to assist vulnerable members of our society who would not have access to legal services.

Many of us can, and should, participate in the roll-out of various human rights programmes by way of supporting organisations such as ProBono.Org and Legal Aid South Africa and various other pro bono initiatives. 

We therefore want to encourage the legal profession to continue making a meaningful contribution to society by offering pro bono legal services and also to acknowledge those who are already making a significant contribution to ensuring access to justice in our country.

Other ways of assisting would be by implementing the Human Rights Plan, both by stepping forward as advocates of the plan and also to assist persons with legal redress.

It is vital to the success of the Human Rights Plan to include qualified and experienced legal practitioners who can contribute to the human rights agenda.

I want to conclude with the words of Justice Cameron, when he once remarked that “Aids exposes us in all our terrible human vulnerability. It brings to the fore our fears and prejudices.”

I think we all saw those fears and prejudices in relation to HIV/AIDS in the past and we are also seeing it now in relation to the coronavirus. I think some of the comments on social media are worrying, especially with people asking for the names and addresses of those affected.  I therefore want to reiterate what the Minister of Health said when he asked that the privacy of patients, affected individuals and families be respected.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to leave you with a quote from the High Level Panel on Ending AIDS which took place in New York, and I quote:

…”upholding the values of inclusion and social justice is fundamental to creating societies that advance dignity and share the benefit of wealth and health for all. Every person, no matter their HIV or TB status, should be allowed to love, to live in peace and to be able to contribute to the health and economy of their community”.

I thank you.

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