How AIDS Healthcare Foundation Defied a Government and Went Global

South Africans march in Umlazi in 2014 for AHF's "20x20" campaign

South Africans march in Umlazi in 2014 for AHF's "20x20" campaign - photo by AHF/Flickr

In November 2000, AIDS Healthcare Foundation began the risky, complex work of providing free HIV drug treatment in far-flung corners of the world — up until then, the Los Angeles-based organization had only worked in California and Florida. Within months, AHF found itself in a charged, international showdown with the South African government.

The fact was, South African leaders didn’t want AHF in their country, even though it had the largest HIV-positive population in the world, few South Africans were receiving HIV medications, and thousands were dying from AIDS.

Shockingly, President Thabo Mbeki didn’t believe antiretroviral drug therapy was needed to combat the AIDS epidemic, instead suggesting that a healthy diet and exercise were enough.

Mbeki was lambasted by global AIDS movement leaders, but that was the hostile environment that AHF staffers and South African AIDS activists were heading into — and they didn’t back down.

By 2002, AHF opened, still largely against the wishes of the South African government, a free HIV treatment clinic known as Ithembalabantu, or the “people’s hope,” in the impoverished, under-served township of Umlazi. Only 14 miles south of Durban, it was one of the worst AIDS hot spots in the world.

AHF started up modestly — a 100-person pilot program in which every patient received free antiretroviral drug therapy.

“You can’t fight a huge government like that,” AHF Global Advocacy chief Terri Ford explained to me for the book Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World. “You have to show it can be done; that people’s lives can be saved, even if it’s only a hundred patients.

But AHF had to pay, out of pocket, $5,000 per year for each patient — no government was reimbursing the organization.

At the time, $500,000 a year was a major drag on AHF’s bottom line. The nonprofit also launched another 100-person, $500,000-a-year pilot program in Uganda months after the South African clinic opened.

“We didn’t have the money,” AHF president and co-founder Michael Weinstein told me, “but that never really stopped us before.”

AHF’s willingness to face possible financial disaster and stare down the South African government has saved countless numbers of lives — in 2016, AHF’s South Africa program serves more than 80,000 registered clients.

It’s an inspiring story of grit and compassion that’s detailed in Righteous Rebels, and the subject of an excellent companion piece: a powerful, 27-minute documentary titled The People’s Hope. Check out the film above.

Today, AHF and the South African government are solid partners in the fight against AIDS, and AHF has turned into the world’s largest HIV/AIDS medical-care provider — offering its cutting-edge services in 37 countries to more than 628,000 registered clients. It all started with a small, free clinic in South Africa.

Read “Righteous Rebels: AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Crusade to Change the World” and learn more about AHF. Now available as an e-book and paperback.

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