Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa's address to delegates at the 8th SA Aids Conference in Durban was marred by sex workers and "their allies" from different civil organisations who held a silent protest at the podium during his speech.
The protesters, mostly women in orange and black t-shirts, led by Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work, stood on the left and right sides of the stage while Ramaphosa spoke at the podium.
Marlise Richter from Sonke Gender Justice told News24 that they staged "the silent protest" in objection to the recently launched National Strategic Plan (NSP) on HIV, TB, and STIs because it does not include the decriminalisation of sex work.
"Protesters lined the stage with placards calling out the South African National AIDS Council (Sanac) and the government for removing a recommendation to decriminalise sex work from the final 2017 - 2022 National Strategic Plan on HIV, TB and STIs revealed a few weeks ago," Richter said.
The decriminalisation of sex work is the only law reform option that removes all aspects of the criminal law from sex work and respects the human rights of sex workers, she said.
The demonstrators' T-shirts carried the phrase: sex workers rights are human rights.
They carried placards asking Sanac to decriminalise sex work.
Research has shown that the decriminalisation of sex work would have a powerful impact on the AIDS epidemic, by averting between one-third and one-half (33-46%) of HIV infections among female sex workers and their clients within a decade, the protesters said.
"We demand that Sanac amends the NSP to include these vital provisions and that the SA government moves speedily and urgently to remove all aspects of the criminal law from sex work," Ritchie said.
Ramaphosa ignored the demonstrators until he concluded his speech.
Afterwards, he engaged with those who stood on his left while he was on his way out.
"The deputy president told us a lot of things but he did not give us a chance to engage with him," said Richter.
During his address, Ramaphosa applauded delegates and other civil organisations for their contribution to the implementation of the NSP.
He said this was an example of a strong and successful social compliment.
"Through this NSP, many of us, representing many formations in the country, have succeeded in putting together an effective social compact. The new NSP 2017 to 2022 is a plan that equips us and will indeed strengthen our resolve in as far as our interventions to continue driving down new HIV and TB infections," he said.
While government acknowledged the huge gains they had made, they remained alive and anxious about the persistently high levels of new infection among young girls and women.
"Initiatives such as the She Conquers campaign will enable us to ensure that adolescent girls and young women remain HIV-free," he said.
The campaign addresses gender-based violence, teenage pregnancies, and links young people to economic opportunities, he added.
Use 'two thumbs' Ramaphosa called on the youth to use social media platforms "to remind their sexually active friends to always practice safe sex".
"Today's youth have a strong and powerful ally. They inhabit an interconnected global village. They are able to appropriate social media to promote prevention and healthy lifestyles," Ramaphosa said.
He said the youth should use "their two thumbs" and mediums such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to promote awareness and tolerance.
The Long Walk to Prevention - which was the theme of 2017's conference - calls for the energy, vibrancy and infinite resourcefulness of young people, Ramaphosa said.
"They must lead the prevention revolution because prevention is the pillar of our response," he said, adding that he welcomed the declaration of the Higher Education AIDS National Youth Conference (Heaids) which was held in Durban last week.
This declaration tells us young people are not walking away from the challenges they face, he said.
"They are confronting these challenges with passion, focus and, above all, solutions of their own," Ramaphosa said.
He said the current generations of SA youth, "like those of 1976, will make history".
Ramaphosa welcomed the launch of the LGBTI plan by the premier of KZN on Wednesday night.
"As government, we welcome this new plan and commit to support its implementation," he said.
Our freedom will remain incomplete if we continue to discriminate against vulnerable populations like men who have sex with men, sex workers, members of the LGBTI community and those who inject drugs, he said.
"For our freedom to thrive and flourish, we must collectively build public institutions that protect the dignity of all and prevent stigmatisation and social exclusion," Ramaphosa said.
He said the society correctly viewed the epidemic of gender-based violence as inexcusable and reprehensible.
"We must stand together to say it is unacceptable for a man to raise a hand to strike a women. All men must say, 'Not in my name'," said Ramaphosa.
He encouraged delegates who attended the conference to make sure that the country continues to build on the progress made to date in the fight against the epidemic.
"Today we also salute all the activists of this struggle for their unyielding commitment to the course of freedom, justice, but more particularly something that's close to our hearts at this conference, health for all," said Ramaphosa.
He said since the dawn of the country's democracy, the government had been on a quest to respond to the myriad social economic, political and cultural problems that confront South Africans.
"The National Development Plan (NDP) is now our national master plan for building a non-racial, a non-sexist, as well as a prosperous SA. Under the NDP, we will continue to transform our economy to expand initiatives that will ensure that we create more jobs for our people and we build a more equitable and cohesive society," he said.
These initiatives will continue only if we continue to work together as social partners as we develop our country, Ramaphosa said.