Zackie Achmat, TIME hero

24 April 2003

Aids activist Zackie Achmat continues to receive accolades in the international community for his struggle to get antiretroviral drugs administered free to HIV/Aids sufferers.

This week he was featured as one of 35 “Heroes 2003” around the world in TIME magazine’s European edition. In the profile, written by South African TIME correspondent Peter Hawthorne, Achmat is described as “filled with defiant energy” and “an old hand at fighting deadly foes”.

Certainly, Aids is not the first battle Achmat, 40, has taken up. Writes Hawthorne: “As a schoolboy in the 1970s in a segregated Cape Town township, he was caught up in the violent student campaign against apartheid. He helped to set fire to his own school and was arrested and detained five times.

“For 10 years he operated as an underground activist for the banned African National Congress, evading the secret police and organising youth resistance groups.”

A new struggle
Then it was apartheid, now it is Aids. Ironically, Achmat’s latest struggle frequently pits him against the government he fought to put in place, although he insists he is still a loyal member of the ANC.

Achmat, who is gay and who has openly championed gay rights, took on his new struggle when he found out he was HIV-positive. “The disease was regarded as taboo”, he says in the TIME article. “The cost of treatment, if you could find any, was way out of the reach of poor people. To have Aids was a death sentence.”

With the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which he heads, Achmat has fought and won several battles to make anti-retrovirals more accessible to those who can’t afford to pay for them. Extensive lobbying by the TAC helped compel 39 large pharmaceutical companies to back down from their legal challenge against South Africa’s drug laws, in an attempt to prevent the production and importation of generic Aids drugs.

Refusal to take antiretrovirals
His ongoing battle is to get the government to offer anti-retrovirals to the thousands of Aids sufferers who need them. Despite losing a lot of weight recently and suffering from constant diarrhoea, Achmat refuses to take the medication himself – in solidarity with the so many others who are denied it because they cannot afford to pay for it.

The South African government has increased its HIV/Aids-combatting budget ten-fold from R342-million in 2001/02 to R3.6-billion in 2005/6, but is still unable to offer all Aids sufferers access to antiretrovirals. This would cost government R7-billion a year.

Pregnant HIV-positive mothers around the country now receive Nevirapine to stop mother-to-child transmission, where adequate counselling and testing facilities exist. Antiretrovirals are also being offered to those who have been raped.

The government is also providing treatment for opportunistic infections associated with Aids such as TB, pneumonia and oral thrush, but the provision of antiretrovirals for all Aids sufferers continues to pose a major challenge. A government task team trying to find ways of lowering the drug prices is set to announce its findings soon.

In the meantime, Achmat won’t give up his struggle until he sees poor people who are Aids sufferers get the life-saving treatment he believes they have a right to. Not even former President Nelson Mandela, who has visited him to plead with him to take the drugs, can change his mind.

Achmat has received several other accolades, including:

  • In April 2001 he was named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Week”.
  • In October 2001 he won the Desmond Tutu Leadership Award.
  • The Treatment Action Campaign won an MTV Free Your Mind Award in Germany in November 2001.

Others listed in TIME’s “Heroes 2003” include U-2’s Bono, soccer star David Beckham and Harry Potter author J K Rowling.

SouthAfrica.info reporter