March 21, 1962 – Zackie Achmat:
Activism is the one way to win incremental changes that improve people’s lives on a daily basis and reduce the risks or mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS.
You’ve probably never heard of Zackie Achmat. Well, not unless you’re a South African HIV/AIDS patient demanding your government’s help to stay alive, or a global pharmaceutical corporation looking to protect an AIDS-drug patent. Achmat is a dangerous man, at least to those he sees as the perpetrators of injustice.
Achmat was born as Abdurazzak Achmat to Indian parents. He lives with HIV and has been an activist since he was 14-years-old. He has been detained and imprisoned several times for protesting apartheid and he continues to risk arrest in his work to protect Human Rights, and in turn, LGBTQ Rights and the rights of HIV-positive South Africans.
He founded the South African National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE), that took action in the Constitutional Court of South Africa which struck down the laws prohibiting consensual sexual activities between men. Basing its decision on the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, and its explicit prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation, the court unanimously ruled that the crime of sodomy, and various other anti-LGBTQ laws, were unconstitutional and therefore invalid.
In 1998, Achmat and 10 other activists founded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an international HIV/AIDS activist group that combined the tactics and political networks of AIDS advocacy groups in the United States such as ACT UP, with those of South African trade unions and anti-apartheid movements.
Achmat has received numerous awards for his work, including the Desmond Tutu Leadership Award, the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights and amfAR‘s Award of Courage. In 2004, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, he still works in South Africa as an HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ activist. He is prominently featured in the recent HIV/AIDS documentary Fire In The Blood (2013). The film is an intricate tale of medicine, monopoly and malice, how Western pharmaceutical companies and governments aggressively blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries in Africa, causing ten million or more unnecessary deaths, and the improbable group of people who decided to fight back.
In 1990, Achmat was diagnosed as HIV+ and given six months to live. He lay in bed, read and watched movies. When the months passed, and he hadn’t died he decided to get out of bed and fight. His contribution to the struggle against HIV/AIDS in South Africa turned out to be one of the most important stands in history.
The South African government failed to comprehend the scale of the crisis and was paralyzed by denial, a denial such as President Thabo Mbeki‘s association with a discredited group of “dissident” scientists who deny a link between AIDS and HIV infection.
He was unstoppable once he got to work, Achmat risked it all. He refused to take the lifesaving antiretroviral medication available to him, because the prohibitive price put them out of reach to most South Africans living with HIV. He became a walking indictment of the unnecessarily high cost of the medication, and a symbol for the South African people to rally around. Achmet:
I was the first person to decide not to take anti-retroviral drugs. Not because I didn’t believe that they didn’t work – because I believed they worked and because I believed that they should be available to everyone.
The pressure that Achmat and TAC used to force the roll-out of affordable antiretroviral drugs was immense, and the effects were stunning: life expectancy in stretches of rural South Africa rose from 49-years in 2003 to over 60-years in 2014, thanks in large part to the activism of Achmat.
Plus, the effect of his effort to reduce the stigma around HIV through the slogan ”HIV Positive”, on posters and displayed on tee-shirts all over the country, was enormous. The courage and energy needed by Achmat to be the leading figure in the campaign was immense, and he never hesitated to put himself in harm’s way. Achmat:
At one stage I thought that I would die very badly, because I know how people die when they have HIV. I’m lucky. I didn’t pay with my life.
Confident and astonishingly courageous from a young age, he told his parents and family that he was gay when he was just 10-years-old. He grew up in the “coloured” community and was always a force for the resistance. As a kid, Achmat gained special permission to use the whites-only library for reading, but he was still prohibited from using its restrooms. As an active member of the illegal African National Congress, he was jailed many times before apartheid ended and the ANC’s Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, and in 1996, South Africa had become the first nation whose Bill of Rights bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
When faced with the inadequate education apartheid offered to children of color, Achmat took a stand. Many children dream about burning down their schools; Achmat actually did it during the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid education. He was just 14, and that was just the opening act of his activism which led him to be well acquainted with apartheid’s prison cells.
Education is the key to human dignity and freedom. It is the key for living in the world – the social property that has been accumulated through generations. That’s why he responded with such vehemence when faced with an education system that discriminated based on race.
An eloquent, dynamic speaker, never been shy of a fight, Achmat always rises when facing injustice. For the African National Congress in the 1980s, he worked underground, setting up youth resistance groups. All the while, he was also active in movements promoting equality for LGBTQ people.
Achmat was one of 44 TAC activists arrested in 2006 for occupying provincial government offices in Cape Town as a protest that called for the Health Minister and Correctional Services Minister to be charged with culpable homicide for the death of an HIV-positive inmate at Westville Prison in Durban. The protesters were charged with trespassing and ordered to appear before court. He was one of 15 plaintiffs in a case against the Departments of Health and Correctional Services, suing to be provided access to anti-retroviral drugs. The court ordered the government to provide the drugs immediately.
Achmat had a history with Mandela, they were seen together in public on several occasions. On the meaning that Mandela has for South Africa, he writes:
I think Mandela’s greatest contribution to South Africa and to people of my generation was his HIV contribution. He made people who were very angry realize that if you remain angry with someone because of what they’re doing towards you, you harm only yourself.
Mandela asked Achmat to take his medicine in 2002, but Achmat refused until the government announced that it would begin the roll-out. Achmat:
I was happy, but I became depressed for three months because I had thought I was going to die and suddenly I had to plan for a life.
Today, he continues to fight for the marginalized, working with the Social Justice Coalition, which he co-founded in 2008. The SJC works to secure access to clean water and sanitation for residents of informal settlements. He is also involved with organizations targeting injustice and inequality in schools. Underneath his mild manner is an absolute conviction in his beliefs, and a deep intolerance for injustice.
It would be understandable if Achmat had decided to take a step back following the success of his fight to get affordable HIV medication distributed across the country; his actions saved millions of lives. Yet, he still works to improve the lives of the people who need it the most. His impact on South Africa represents one of the most significant contributions by any individual in the history of the country, and he is still going. He currently serves as co-director of Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know), an organization which helps to build and support organisations and leaders of social justice issues.