This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs. Read it there, or see the excerpt below:
Mary-Jane Matsolo, wearing tight jeans, gold high-heeled sandals, and a white t-shirt with navy blue block letters reading “HIV Positive,” strides to the front of the Johannesburg conference room. “I’m the one who will make you understand patent laws and intellectual property rights,” she says to the dozen people gathered before her. “It’s what I do, and I do it very well.”
At Matsolo’s prompting, everyone takes turns explaining why they are here. One after another, advocates for persons with mental illness, diabetes, epilepsy, and other diseases bitterly describe how the patients they represent—and sometimes even they themselves—cannot afford the medicine they need. A drug for depression and bipolar disorder is unavailable due to its price; the same goes for medicines to treat epilepsy, cancer, and reproductive health problems. “Most doctors never tell their patients that these medicines will help them,” says one advocate. “Why would they, if the people can’t get the treatment?” Others call out their agreement.
“OK, that’s good,” Matsolo reassures them. “That’s why we are here.” To start her presentation, she shows the group the back of her t-shirt. It reads, “Bad Patents = Death.”
Matsolo is a campaign officer for the South Africa-based Treatment Action Campaign, known as TAC. She was born Nomathansanqua Matsolo in Port Elizabeth, but her Facebook nickname is “Songbird.” This year, she released an album entitled “Soul of a Woman,” and the album’s lead single got some radio airplay in the Cape Town region. At home in front of a crowd, Matsolo’s chief role at TAC is educating the public about HIV/AIDS. To her, it is more than a job. A now-deceased older sister was HIV-positive, and Matsolo watched her struggle with both her health and the stigma that came with the disease. “Helping my sister and working with TAC turned me into a teacher, a fighter, a motivator,” she says...