Acts of conscience

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*

New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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