One of the key challenges for realising the right to health is the seeming conflict between public health utility and the entitlements that human rights afford to individuals. This conflict has been highlighted in previous research into case studies of civil society mobilisation for health rights in the Southern African region and in conceptual work conducted to explore the links between African philosophy, particularly concepts of ubuntu, and the right to health. In short, a utilitarian critique of rights to health posits the public good as incompatible with claims by individuals to resources needed for health and disputes that rights claims could ever resonate with social solidarity. Such arguments have been most evident in critiques of “AIDS exceptionalism” which coincided with denialist opposition to provision of anti-retroviral medication to persons with HIV in South Africa. However, they are also to be found in broader debates today about health systems strengthening in conditions of resource constraints. 

The Learning Network has sought to explore the nature of empowerment achievable through rights mobilisation for health in civil society and how this has, or has not, strengthened processes of social solidarity. This began under a set of research funded by a grant from the Programme for Enhancement of Research Capacity (PERC) at UCT during which two public seminars were hosted to explore these issues. The Learning Network has also explored this in research within its members through self-reflection on our own experiences. We use this experience to argue that more collective approaches to realising rights offer both more sustainable opportunities to advance health equity, and better conceptual frames to enhance our understanding of rights-based approaches to advancing human well-being. The evidence confirms that the realisation of the right to health is contingent not only on sound legal application of human rights standards, but more particularly on the assertion by civil society of claims facilitated by legal entitlements in ways that recognise the collective nature of socio-economic rights. Far from being antithetical, we believe that claims to the Right to Health are essentially about strengthening the collective agency of the most vulnerable, and are best served by recognising the importance of social solidarity.

This work is ongoing. For example, a further symposium was held on the 17th April 2012 co-hosted with the National Research Foundation Chair in Customary Law to understand better the contribution of African philosophy, and particularly those elements of traditional African beliefs that emphasize social identity and solidarity, to the conceptualisation of the right to health.