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zackie achmat is the iconic aids crusader you don’t know about

June 6, 2019
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When Zackie Achmat was diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, doctors gave him only 6 months to live. He went home and spent that time lying in bed, reading books and watching television. As a gay Coloured man living in the height of the HIV/AIDS panic in South Africa, he had resigned himself to his fate. When the 6 months had passed, he figured it wasn’t his time yet and got up and took part in his life. He had lived to fight another day, and boy did he fight. If the South African education system was half as competent as it should be, the youth might know the story of Zackie Achmat, the gay Coloured man who was the backbone of movements advocating for the rights of gay and lesbian South Africans, as well of the millions of underprivileged people living with AIDS.

Described as “the most important dissident in the country since Nelson Mandela” by the New Yorker in 2003, Achmat put the AIDS epidemic in South Africa on the world stage. In 1999, he announced the first drug strike the world has ever seen, stating “I will not take expensive treatment until all ordinary South Africans can get it on the public-health system.” The cost of antiretrovirals at that time were criminal because it kept thousands without the life-saving drug.

“While this was a personal decision made on the basis of conscience, it became a political stand,” he said.

He founded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) which is a grass roots organization that secures crucial drugs for low-income South Africans. The TAC had to fight a government who blatantly denied the existence of the AIDS epidemic and the pharmaceutical companies that profited off the lack of intervention. Nelson Mandela even asked Achmat to take his medication in 2002 but the activist still refused under a government actively intimidating and harassing TAC members, many of whom were lost owing to the lack of freely available ARVs. The drug is freely available now and the distribution raised the life expectancy in South Africa from 49 years old to 60 years old.

Achmat founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1994 and spearheaded the inclusion of gay rights in South Africa’s new constitution, now heralded as one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. He won his bid in the Constitutional Court  to decriminalize sodomy and ensured that South Africa would have a governing document that led the charge in protecting LGBTQ+ Africans. The South African Constitution represents the kind of society one hopes the country could be, and that is because people like Achmat showed up and reminded us that the struggle stalwarts that the fight against white supremacy was for and by everyone and thus the gains should include everyone.

Achmat’s resistance records tracks all the way back to the 1976 uprisings that inspired the creation of Youth Day (June 16th) to commemorate the lives of the young that were lost that day. Primary and high school students across the country organized to stage protests against the piss-poor Bantu Education system fed to Black and Brown South African children. To call it “an education” is kind as it was an underfunded attempt at preparing marginalized youths to aspire to nothing more than working for white people, especially considering all material was taught in Afrikaans. Achmat and thousands of kids across the country marched against this travesty and were met with the force of the apartheid police, resulting in the loss of approximately 176 young lives. The Soweto township may have been the powder keg that day but 15-year-old Zackie burnt down his school in protest. When speaking about what drove him, Achmat said, “Education is the key to human dignity and freedom. It is the key for living in the world – the social property that has been accumulated through generations.”

Social property— what a perfect description of knowledge. It is there to be passed down — an organic account of who we are through what we did and what was done to us. When it comes to our education systems, the social property we get is a far-flung cry from the social property we are meant to inherit. Mandela may be the defining figure of the apartheid movement but there are other stories, other forms of social property missing from our everyday understanding of the apartheid resistance. The fact that Achmat managed to move mountains, coming from a religious family in Cape Town, whom he came out to at 10 is the social property of every Coloured gay boy who needs to hear it.

As International Pride Month and South Africa’s Youth Month fill June with history and hope, it’s the figures like Achmat, who have played such important roles in both communities, that remind us that a month is never enough.