New Internationalist

Acts of conscience

Issue 400

A courageous AIDS activist who knows the power of moral pressure.

Zackie Achmat, the South African political activist most famous for his stand on AIDS, has inspired many. But if you ask him for his source of inspiration, he will credit his grandfather: ‘His example instilled in me the importance of treating all people with equal human dignity and respect.’ These values have shaped Zackie’s life as an activist, which began when he rallied fellow students in the Cape to stand in solidarity with their comrades in Soweto during the Student Uprisings of 1976. He was imprisoned frequently for his anti-apartheid activities and it became impossible to complete his schooling. Despite this he was given special permission to complete a university degree some years later and was active in underground work in support of the African National Congress.

With the overthrow of apartheid, Zackie was key in ensuring the equality clause in the new South African Constitution extended to all ‘regardless of sexual orientation’. He formed the country’s first Gay and Lesbian coalition and began to develop the tools that would later be used in the HIV/AIDS struggle – a combination of mass education, community mobilization and legal action based on the Constitution.

Already active in AIDS work, Zackie discovered he was HIV positive. Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) had transformed HIV into a chronic, manageable condition in the North but their cost was prohibitive for the South. Those who could afford to pay for them lived, and those who couldn’t died.

The death of gay rights activist Simon Nkoli in 1998 precipitated the launch of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). A small group of committed activists soon grew into a truly grassroots mass movement. Their anger reflected the pain and fury of people who believed in social justice, many of whom were experiencing this unfolding tragedy first hand. To the amazement of all except those who knew him well, Zackie declared he would not take ARVs himself until all South Africans were able to do so through the public health service. Everyone, including former President Nelson Mandela, tried to persuade him otherwise. But as Zackie told the Los Angeles Times: ‘It wasn’t just a protest action, it was an act of conscience.’ He relented in 2003 when it was clear that the Government would proceed with an ARV rollout.

Zackie has been honoured with many awards for his courage. But few people can claim to have been nominated both for the Nobel Peace Prize (with TAC) and accused of genocide. In 2006, AIDS denialist Anthony Brink charged Zackie (and the TAC) at the International Criminal Court in the Hague with ‘causing the death of millions’ through the promotion of ARVs. No-one took this absurd charge seriously. In fact, it only served to confirm Zackie’s status as an indefatigable fighter for justice. His grandfather would be proud.

Shereen Usdin www.tac.org.za

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Acts of conscience

Leave your comment







 

  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews

Multimedia

Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Recently in Features

All Features

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 400

New Internationalist Magazine issue 400
Issue 400

More articles from this issue

  • Karl Rove

    May 1, 2007

    The Darth Vader of US elections

  • Segu Blue

    May 1, 2007

    West African Bassekou Kouyate and Mali’s first traditional lute quartet

  • Revenge

    May 1, 2007

    Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy’s song of reconciliation.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.

Subscribe