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Biography of Zackie ACHMAT

South Africa > Politics : Zackie ACHMAT

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Born on 21/03/1962 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Zackie Achmat (b.March 21,1962), is a South African activist against aids ,and  the founder and chairman of Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). Tac is an organization dedicated to complete and no-cost treatment for HIV-infected South Africans,  Zackie Achmat has struggled to bring hope to his AIDS-ravaged country.He is a hero for thousands of South Africans for his fight for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. Zackie Achmat, the  leading AIDS activist  has refused to take anti-retroviral medicines until they were made available by the government in public hospitals and clinics.
He is currently attacking ex-President Mbeke for his stance on Aids, Achmat accuses Mbeke of having been responsable for the death of 330 000 people.

When TAC began in the late 1990s, treatment of AIDS and HIV required drugs that were too expensive to be widely distributed among South Africa's HIV-positive residents. After Achmat and the TAC succeeded in their goal of gaining access to cheaper drugs, they faced another obstacle: the South African government, officially skeptical of the relationship between HIV and AIDS as well as the effectiveness of drug treatments

Beginnings and political activities

Born in Johannesburg on the 21st March 1962,Abdurrazack Achmat  "Zackie" was raised in a Muslim community in Cape Town by his mother and aunt  in Cape Town, South Africa. "There were times when I was a kid when we went to bed without food but my aunt and mother never begged: it was critical to our sense of dignity," he said.
His political activism began When he was 14 in 1976, he  convinced several of his older classmates to help burn down their high school, Salt River High, during the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid education. (Apartheid was the system of government-sanctioned discrimination against blacks.) Soon after, he was arrested for organizing a demonstration that coincided with a visit by the U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

He spent much of the late 1970s in prison for his political activities. In the 1980s he worked as an African National Congress (ANC) activist but often clashed with the organization's hierarchy. (The ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, was devoted to ending South Africa's widespread apartheid.) Within the ANC Achmat worked on education initiatives and publicity campaigns--one event he organized was the first mass ANC funeral, a politically charged eulogy for those who died as a result of the violence between the ANC and the reigning government. In 1990, many years after he had supported himself as a male prostitute, Achmat was diagnosed with HIV.  Achmat earned a bachelor's degree in English in about 1993 from the University of the Western Cape, in Bellville; the school administration made a special exception and allowed him to enroll without a high school diploma. In the mid-1990s he worked for the legal team that defended the ANC in the aftermath of the March 1994 "Shell House shootings," during which more than a dozen people were killed and hundreds injured in a clash between the ANC and Zulu dissidents. Achmat served briefly as the director of the AIDS Law Project in 1994, but left later that year to found the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. (He is openly gay.) The organization led the effort to include a clause in the 1996 South African constitution forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
 Through the efforts of Achmat and the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a sodomy law was declared illegal and same-sex partners were granted financial and legal status equal to those of married couples. During this time, Achmat was a supporter of the political ambitions of Thabo Mbeki , who succeeded Nelson Mandela as the ANC's leader in late 1997 and as South Africa's president in 1999.

Battle & victory

In 1998 Achmat fell ill with candidiasis, often called thrush, a condition frequently associated with the third stage of HIV infection, when the body can no longer fight off minor contagions. (Although the definition of AIDS has changed since its discovery, it is now widely classified as the fourth stage of HIV, when the patient's immune system weakens beneath a certain threshold.) While he was being treated for thrush, Achmat refused to take anti-retroviral medications, which prevent more serious future outbreaks in an HIV-infected individual, because their high cost--around $500 per month--put them out of reach for most HIV-positive South Africans. Anti-retrovirals have measurably decreased AIDS deaths among populations in countries that have health care systems with enough money to provide drug treatment to HIV-infected residents, but South Africa's government was unable to afford the medications. Nor, it seemed, was the ANC hierarchy in the South African government willing to push for more affordable methods. A program in South African hospitals that freely gave HIV-positive pregnant women AZT to combat passing HIV to their newborns was discontinued in late 1998. Achmat and others, angered by the program's suspension, formed the TAC to push for wider drug availability for HIV-positive South Africans. Achmat, who had already gained a reputation as a loyal but unruly ANC member, met with the government's health minister, Nkosazana Zuma, in May 1999; afterwards, Zuma announced her intention to reinstate the policy of allowing all HIV-positive pregnant women access to preventive drugs. She had previously encouraged passage of the 1997 Medicines Act, which allowed the government to bypass pharmaceutical patents to manufacture or import cheaper but nearly identical versions of AIDS drugs. In response to the 1997 legislation, the 39 major pharmaceutical companies that comprised the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association initiated a lawsuit against the South African government. The companies argued that the patents were in place to raise money for research and development of new treatments. In September 1999 the United States government--specifically Vice President Al Gore--threatened South Africa with sanctions for the importation of generic drugs. After the TAC rallied international pressure against the U.S. stance on the issue, Gore withdrew the threat. But just as that hurdle had been overcome, President Thabo Mbeki announced in October 1999 that AIDS drugs were ineffective and dangerous. (Mbeki shared a widely-held view among many South Africans, and at one time by Achmat himself, that the AIDS virus had been exaggerated by profit-seeking drug companies capitalizing on the racial stereotype that Africans were prone to disease. Mbeki's belief was that poverty was the primary scourge.) Many people--government officials, health care workers, and private citizens--were stunned by Mbeki's pronouncement; speculations arose that his motivation to suppress the demand for AIDS drugs was economic, or that his source was the Internet or unreliable research. To the consternation of many AIDS activists, Mbeki's new health minister--Zuma had been transferred to the Foreign Affairs ministry in June 1999--supported his claims.

 Despite Mbeki's announcement, the TAC continued their lobbying efforts for cheaper drugs. In March 2000 TAC's efforts turned specifically to the drug company Pfizer, which held the patent on the drug Fluconazole, an effective treatment for thrush and cryptococcal meningitis, another common infection among HIV-infected patients. TAC demanded that Pfizer choose one of two options: either reduce the price of Fluconazole's 200-milligram pill from its high price--capsules were sold at $12 each to private practices and $7.50 each to public hospitals--to 50 cents, or give the South African government the legal ability to import generic drugs of the same design. Instead, Pfizer offered to donate another drug, Difulcan, which treated only cryptococcal meningitis, to all HIV-infected people in South Africa for two years, after which the patent would expire.  Several months later, no part of Pfizer's donation had arrived in South Africa. "Our patience had run out," Achmat later explained to the Multinational Monitor (January 1, 2001). "The government had not responded to a TAC request to issue a compulsory license against the company and Pfizer announced record profits. In the interim, thousands of people continued to die of systemic thrush and cryptococcal meningitis."

One of TAC's primary objectives was to encourage the government to distribute Nevirapine, a new drug that helped prevent transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their babies. Despite winning the Medicines Act case, Mbeki's government failed to establish a national treatment plan, and TAC continued its campaign for universal coverage. Based on a December 2001 court ruling, the Mbeki government was obliged to begin a widespread program of HIV drug distribution; the administration, however, appealed the decision and initiated a much smaller treatment program. In February 2002 TAC participated in a large protest that demanded HIV/AIDS treatment for all infected people, as well as a basic income grant for all citizens, regardless of their HIV status. Several months later a South African court ruled that the state must provide Nevirapine to all women who need it. (Achmat had argued at the trial that HIV/AIDS treatment actually lessened the costs to the government, since fewer deaths and hospital trips would reduce the amount of money spent in the health sector.)

When Achmat was hospitalized in July 2002, former South African president Nelson Mandela visited and announced that he would join TAC's lobbying effort for a comprehensive AIDS treatment plan, calling Achmat a national hero. "He is a role model and his action is based on a fundamental principle which we all admire," Mandela explained, as quoted by the Agence France Presse (July 27, 2002). in March 2003 TAC organized massive demonstrations demanding the implementation of an anti-retroviral treatment program and calling for the arrest of Tshabalala-Msimang and Industry Minister Alec Erwin on the charge of culpable homicide. During Achmat's "drug strike" many of his relatives, colleagues and friends implored Achmat to take medicines, but he remained unwilling to do so until his demand of AIDS treatment for all South Africans was met. "I don't want to live in a world where people die every day simply because they are poor,
In December 2002 doctors gave Achmat a 50-50 chance of surviving another year without taking anti-retrovirals. Despite his insistence on remaining true to his pledge, by the spring of 2003 he told Samantha Power that the situation in South Africa had changed significantly enough that "there's a strong possibility, indeed a probability, that I'll take [anti-retrovirals]." Achmat had begun his strike when he felt pharmaceutical companies to be responsible for the unavailability of affordable drug distribution, but he told Power that the struggle seemed to have become solely a battle with Mbeki. "I don't want to kill myself for Thabo. I want to make sure that people get medicines."

. On August 4 Achmat announced that he intended to begin treatment. "I am not going to die because [Thabo Mbeki and other government officials] want us to die," he told a crowd at the AIDS conference, In November 2003 the government unveiled their new plan: through a vastly increased AIDS budget, thousands of health professionals would be trained to work in health centers established in all 250 South African municipalities, at which free anti-retrovirals would be distributed to millions of HIV-infected citizens.


In 2002 he 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, according to Tamar Kahn for Johannesburg's Business Day (July 10, 2002)

. In April 2002 Achmat was awarded the Homo Homini prize by the organization People in Need; the prize is granted annually "to an individual who has made a significant personal contribution to the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy through non-violent means," according to the organization's Web site.

He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Natal in April 2003, and the following month received the 2003 Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights, an award administered by Doctors of the World, the Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, and the Global Health Council.

Achmat received the Desmond Tutu Leadership Award in 2001;  and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2003. In 2004, he was one of the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2003, he was featured as one of "35 Heroes around the world "in Time magazine'sEuropean edition.

In 2001 It's My Life, a documentary film about Achmat's struggles, was released and has since been shown at several film festivals. Achmat has also directed a film, Apostles of a Civilised Voice, the culmination of research he conducted while working toward a master's degree at the University of Western Cape in the early 1990s. A history of South African homosexuality, it was released in 1999 and has been screened on South African television stations and at gay-oriented film festivals. Aside from his ongoing struggles for social justice, Achmat hopes to also make more movies and to write a novel.

Private life

Zackie Achmat got married to his partner Dalli Weyers on January 5, 2008 in Cape Town.

Last update : 11/07/2008

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