Zackie Achmat was 14 when he took his first direct action. It was 1976 and he felt fellow pupils at his “coloured,” or mixed-race, school were not sufficiently supportive of the anti-apartheid education boycott spreading from the black townships around Johannesburg. So he set fire to his school and no one went to classes.
Thirty years later, Mr. Achmat is still using direct action. Recently, his struggle has focussed on liberating South Africa’s poor from what amounted to the death sentence of Aids. The HIV-positive activist founded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) 10 years ago as a direct challenge to Thabo Mbeki’s outlandish views on the causes of Aids and his refusal to provide conventional treatment through the public health service.
TAC began by campaigning to force drug companies to lower their prices. The big U.S. and European manufacturers charged several times the cost of generics from India but pressured the South African government to block imports of the cheaper drugs.
Mr. Achmat challenged the ban by flying to Thailand to buy fluconazole, a treatment for thrush, at 4p a capsule. Pfizer was selling its patented version in South Africa for more than £5 a capsule. Mr. Achmat was arrested for illegally importing drugs but the publicity forced Pfizer to donate the drug for free to public hospitals in South Africa, setting off price cuts for anti-Aids drugs. But Mr. Achmat’s greatest impact has been in leading the campaign that shamed Mr. Mbeki and his Health Minister into putting aside their outlandish views on Aids.
Mr. Achmat’s struggle to see antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in public hospitals has often been as bitter as his resistance to apartheid. Two years ago, he was arrested for occupying government offices to demand the Minister and others be charged with culpable homicide over the death of an HIV-positive prisoner who was denied ARVs.
Through all this, Mr. Achmat was battling the virus and refusing ARVs until every South African had access to them for free. But when he fell seriously ill, Nelson Mandela appealed to him to abandon his pledge, which he did five years ago. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008
7 months ago