HIV/Aids activist Zackie Achmat is best known for founding the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which focuses on making medicine accessible for those who cannot afford private health care. He is also a documentary filmmaker and former anti-apartheid and gay-rights activist.
Born in Johannesburg on 21 March 1962, he was raised in a Muslim community in Cape Town. No stranger to fighting injustice, Zackie was 14 when he set fire to his Salt River High School during the Soweto uprising to force fellow students to boycott classes. During the apartheid regime, he was arrested and detained five times.
Zackie studied for a BA at the University of the Western Cape. The institution made an exception and allowed him to enrol without a high-school diploma.
Once on the HIV/Aids bandwagon, Zackie targeted government policies and brand-name pharmaceutical companies through the TAC, determined to ensure that HIV/Aids did not equate to a death sentence. The TAC has since broadened its goals to improve all aspects of health care provision, particularly with the implementation of an antiretroviral (ARV) programme in the public health sector.
Zackie fought some epic battles and won. As a member of the African National Congress (ANC),
Zackie frequently had to challenge the party he helped rise to power on its lack of appropriate HIV/
Aids policies. He called health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang a murderer for preventing the
distribution of ARVs and in 2006 demanded that she and others be charged with culpable homicide
over the death of an HIV-positive inmate who was denied ARVs at Durban’s Westville Prison.
On a personal note, Zackie was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1998. He said his refusal to take Aids
medication (even at Nelson Mandela’s request), until treatment had been made available in public
hospitals and clinics, was a matter of conscience. He held out until August 2003, shortly before the
government announced that thousands of health professionals would be trained to work in health
centres at 250 municipalities, where ARVs would be distributed to millions of HIV sufferers.
Prior to starting the TAC, Zackie was a director of the Aids Law Project at the University of the
Witwatersrand. Both organisations work closely together to fight for the legal right to health.
He founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality and in the early 1990s ensured
protections for these communities in the South African Constitution. Laws banning sodomy were
overturned and the government was forced to recognise same-sex marriage. Zackie married his partner Dalli Weyers in 2008.
He is the joint founder of the Social Justice Coalition, formed to promote the rights of the poor and
unemployed, and a director of the Centre for Law and Social Justice. Zackie was the first South African recruit of the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC, the local section of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is a global association of Trotskyist parties.
Among several prestigious awards, Zackie won the inaugural Desmond Tutu Leadership Award in 2001 as well as the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2003. He was elected an Ashoka Fellow that year and was named one of TIME Europe magazine’s Heroes of 2003.
Zackie was awarded an Honorary Master’s degree in Social Science by the University of Cape Town for his “astounding ability to produce high-quality detailed research” and his “exceptional” political skills. He was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law by the then University of Natal.
For his undying devotion to community health care goals, the City of Cape Town confers Civic Honours on Zackie Achmat.