Abdurrazack Achmat has witnessed firsthand two of the most epic struggles of modern times, both of them in his native South Africa: the battle against apartheid in the latter part of the 20th century and the war against AIDS in the first part of the 21st century. Zackie, as he is known, saw the foundation of his country’s racist government crumble before his eyes, but he is still dreaming of the day when he can say the same about the health crisis that has a stranglehold on the region. And just as he did with apartheid, he is giving every fiber of his being in hopes of seeing that day in his lifetime.
In 1998, Achmat, already a prominent gay activist, disclosed that he was infected with HIV and co-founded the Treatment Action Campaign. Think of TAC as a bulldozer against the ignorance, indifference and downright discrimination that is partly responsible for the astronomical infection rates in his AIDS-ravaged country. Since creation of TAC, obstacles to AIDS treatment in South Africans have begun to fall, thanks in no small part to his efforts. To millions of his countrymen and woman infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, Achmat is as revered as Nelson Mandela.
Born in Johannesburg and raised in a Muslim community in Cape Town, Achmat abandoned his religious roots for the teachings of Trotsky, then dropped out of high school and dove into a life of prostitution and imprisonment during this country’s violent Black power struggle. Achmat joined the fight against apartheid, not only because he saw it as a just cause, but also because it gave him an outlet for venting frustrations related to his sexuality. He tried to burn down his school at age 14 to protest laws requiring black children to learn the Afrikaans language of the white minority. He was jailed for his rebellious activities so many times; he did not finish high school. When he was not spending nights in incarceration, he was often living on the street.
By the time he emerged from the underworld, South Africa was emerging from white-minority rule and Achmat confronted a new struggle: an HIV diagnosis. His doctors gave him six months to live. Confused and scared, he cut himself off from family and friends and spent his time watching action movies, waiting for death. But death did not come. Achmat began to make movies, many of them about gay and lesbian life, and worked towards an English degree from the University of the Western Cape. He also helped found the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, and joined legal efforts to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and decriminalized sodomy.
Since establishing the Treatment Action Campaign, there has been a direct correlation between TAC’s activism and signs of progress in South Africa’s battle with AIDS. The cost of antiretroviral medicines has plummeted from $10,000 to less than $2,000 a year, with numerous employers offering treatment for less. In 2001, Achmat’s politics of shame helped the government defeat a lawsuit by the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies aimed at keeping developing countries from importing medicines at the lowest rates. In 2002, Achmat stood against the government in a lawsuit that forced President Thabo Mbeki to make antiretroviral drugs available to pregnant women.
More recently, his group turned up pressure to make the drugs available to all people with AIDS by organizing a civil disobedience campaign. In the highest-profile demonstration, Achmat interrupted a speech by the South African Health Minister, shouting that she was a “murderer.” The action sparked a backlash against TAC, but Achmat is not apologetic, claiming that he and five million other South Africans with HIV are running out of time for politeness.
Perhaps Achmat’s biggest sacrifice involves his own, HIV-infected body. Although able to afford antiretroviral drugs, Achmat vowed years ago not to take such medication until the government makes them available to everyone. His body has been so weakened by numerous opportunistic infections that his doctor warns him to start treatment now, because tomorrow could be too late.
“This is a very difficult position for me,” Achmat says. “I desire to take my medicines. Of course, I do.” Then he recalls all the hugs he’s received from people sick with AIDS during demonstrations. One of them was from a teacher. “She told me her body got strength from my fight. If I take medicines, how could I look her in the face? Lots of people are hanging on because I hang on.”
Achmat has won recognition around the world. He was named one of Time magazine’s 35 world heroes and Nelson Mandela praised him as a role model. Achmat is also a winner of the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, presented by the Global Health Council.
“When Mahatma Gandhi went on his hunger strikes, a lot of people thought he was killing himself for no good reason,” said Dr. Nils Daulaire, president of the Council. “But Achmat has made a moral judgment that by taking this position, he can have greater impact. That is what I call moral courage.”
It is his action and moral courage that Achmat hopes will help free his country of yet another oppressor.