Why did it take so long?

Written by Andrew Rens on December 4th, 2017

Why is an economist of the stature of Joseph Stiglitz talking about South African intellectual property policy, specifically the Draft Intellectual Property Policy? The draft policy sets out something of a legislative agenda for amending the Patent Act. Remember the Patent Act, passed in 1979 and not substantively changed since then. Back in 2013 I wrote about a Draft Intellectual Property Policy and an accompanying call for comments. There isn’t a straight line between that document and the one Stiglitz spoke about. In July 2016 the Cabinet approved a policy document entitled the Intellectual Property Consultative Framework and it is that document which is the origin of the current draft policy.

Stiglitz described the policy as “one of the most advanced proposals I have seen”. How did something as arcane as intellectual property any public attention? You may for course believe that it recieves too little or perhaps too much but it is undeniable to that it receives some. In a fascinating interview Zachie Achmat, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle discusses the start a social movement for access to medicines.  That movement brought attention to patents from a wide variety of people who had not being paying attention to patents before. Anyone interested in patents should read the interview.

At one point the interviewer asks why it has taken 25 years of activism to get to the 2017 policy. Achmat responds that civil society is weak. He may well be right but I am not entirely satisfied with that answer. Access to life saving medicines is crucial for a developing country. What parts could other constituencies in South Africa have played differently so that the this eminently solvable problem would already have been solved?  Asking this I don’t intend to simply blame ‘government’ as if that is a single entity with a unified understanding of the world. Instead this is a question for the rest of us too.



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