Zackie Achmat is no stranger to activism and, as a young adult, was already leading student protests against apartheid by the late 1970s. By 1998 he had co-founded the country’s pre-eminent Aids organisation, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
Extremely vocal about the government dispensing free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to millions of HIV-positive people in South Africa, Achmat quickly garnered the attention of local and international media – with The New Yorker referring to him as “the most important dissident in the country since Nelson Mandela”.
Achmat says although a little over the top, the context in which the article was written was one of a political war without weapons.
Among the reasons for The New Yorker comment was that for almost five years Achmat, himself HIV-positive, had refused to take ARVs until treatment was available in the public sector.
“While this was a personal decision made on the basis of conscience, it became a political stand,” he says.
“A deadly HIV denialism was perpetrated on millions of people by former president Thabo Mbeki and his ANC coterie … between 600 to 900 people a day were dying at the time and the TAC was leading the resistance to government and against pharmaceutical company profiteering.”
During those grim days of the Aids pandemic in South Africa, the government’s response was marked by denial, lack of political will, poor implementation of policies and programmes, and a health minister who promoted fruit and vegetables as a cure for Aids.
Known as “Doctor Beetroot”, the late former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, in her dogged determination to withhold ARVs from about 4.2 million HIV-positive people, caused the country’s life expectancy to drop to 49 years as a result of daily Aids-related fatalities.
Among the dead were scores of TAC members.
“Too many TAC members and leaders died, others were beaten by police, and harassed by ANC thugs and HIV denialists. Our comrades were shot and many of us were arrested several times,” Achmat says.
Over a decade, from 1998 to 2008, the TAC brought about 10 legal matters to the courts and before statutory bodies like the Competition Commission. They held marches of up to 20 000 people and there was not a corner of the country where people were not aware of the struggle for HIV treatment and prevention.
“TAC still exists but I have not been a member of the organisation for about 10 years. I believe that TAC’s primary HIV mission in relation to the state is complete but it has failed dismally to ensure that the private health industry assist government in the prevention and treatment of HIV and all chronic illnesses,” says Achmat.
He does, however, point out that notable treatment strides have been made since those heady days of fighting a system with seemingly no regard for human life.
“In 2008, when Barbara Hogan became minister of health and was then replaced by Dr Aaron Motsoaledi in 2009, nearly 2.5 million people have been placed on ARV treatment. Perhaps a million or more HIV infections were averted because people on treatment and those of us who take our medicines correctly do not transmit the virus to our partners.”
Achmat admits while he does not miss the days of resistance, he will forever “cherish the pain, the wounds and the TAC’s work at the time without any nostalgia”, he insists.
With activism almost etched into his genetic make-up, Achmat continues the good fight in equally important areas of social justice.
“Since TAC, my activist work has grown across different areas of injustice and inequality. I am passionate about knowledge and education and helped establish Equal Education in 2008. Ongoing xenophobic violence led to a massive civil society response in Cape Town under the banner of the TAC, [Doctors Without Borders] and the Aids Law Project.
“Out of this violence, we founded the Social Justice Coalition, in which we focused on safety and sanitation in informal settlements.”
Over 43 years of activism, Achmat says he’s been informed by resistance and rebellion against injustice and inequality in South Africa and throughout the world.
“Politics have failed. Ours is a dangerous time, one in which neo-fascist black and white organisations exploit insecurity, inequality, fear, war, race and immigration to destroy solidarity and unity. We must build a new politics of decency with participatory democracy in every sphere of life.”
On the subject of the ongoing global HIV/Aids pandemic and, especially, young adults considering sexual intimacy for the first time, Achmat reminds people: “Sex is one of the most intimate and beautiful parts of our lives. Always be safe when you have a partner.
“Whether you are heterosexual or LGBTI, your life is the only thing that makes it possible towards a better world.”
Although most young adults have no idea of the battle fought between the government and its people, let alone the work of Achmat and the TAC, the organisation continues its work.