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Angry protests as companies start drug battle

The battle over South Africa's medicine legislation came to a head on two fronts in Pretoria on Monday - in the city streets and in the High Court.

As angry words flew when protesters demanding cheaper drugs delivered a memorandum, the court heard in legal argument that the issue was not about affordable and accessible drugs.

The crux of the matter was the constitutionality of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act of 1997, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Association (PMA) contended.

Representing about 40 local and international pharmaceutical companies, it wants the court to prevent the enforcement of the act.

'You are treating us with contempt' The PMA's legal representative Fanie Cilliers SC said certain sections of the act were unconstitutional. They were also in breach of the Patents Act and the country's international
obligations.

As the case got under way, thousands of protesters opposing the PMA court action gathered in Church Square about a block away.

The demonstration was organised by the Congress of SA Trade Unions, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), religious bodies and a range of other organisations.

After marching past the High Court building in Vermeulen Street, the protesters proceeded on a 5km walk to the United States embassy in Arcadia.

There they were upset when senior embassy official Robert Godec refused to walk through the crowd to receive a memorandum outlining their demands.

Cilliers opposed the joining of the TAC "You are treating us with contempt," Cosatu president Willie Madisha told Godec.

Madisha later made a brief appearance in the courtroom, where Cilliers argued that a section of the act gave the health minister the power to render lawful what the Patents Act rendered unlawful.

Another section, which provided for compulsory substitution of scheduled medicines by generic drugs, could be dangerous, and was in breach of property provisions in law, as well as the constitutional rights of equality and freedom of expression, he said.

At the start of Monday's proceedings, Cilliers opposed the joining of the TAC as "friend of the court" in support of the government.

M T K Moerane SC, for the government, expressed his support for the TAC joining them.

"We believe the clients they represent are at the sharp end of what we regard as the unreasonable conduct of the applicants. It would be an injustice not to admit them."

Cilliers requested time to consult his clients. The judge ruled that the matter should continue in the meantime as if TAC had been allowed to join. - Sapa

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