Zackie Achmat is one of South Africa’s most famous activists, described by the New Yorker as “the most important dissident in South Africa since Nelson Mandela”. Founder and chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign and the Social Justice Coalition, he led the nationwide fight against high drug prices and government denialism over HIV/AIDS. An HIV-positive gay man who led the push for equal rights in the post-apartheid constitution, he publicly refused to take treatment until all South Africans could access it. A member of the ANC since apartheid, he strongly clashed with then-president Thabo Mbeki over government policy towards HIV-positive citizens.
On 26 January 2012, he was made Doctor of the University by the University of Sussex. We attended the ceremony and had the chance to interview him afterwards.
What does the Treatment Action Campaign do?
It’s a movement of people living with HIV, their friends and family. It campaigns for access to prevention, treatment, and decent healthcare services. Our work is directed at drug companies, government denialism and neglect — those who are hindering access to treatment.
You refused to take AIDS medication until available to all South Africans — why did you take such a huge risk to yourself?
The fact that if my family members had HIV they wouldn’t have been able to afford treatment. It also became a battle against government denialism and that was why I took that decision.
UNAIDS has announced that SA is to see a huge fall in cases of HIV/AIDS by 2020, do you think that activism played a part in this?
Without activism we would be in a much more difficult position than we are now: we now have more people in treatment, a government that is giving out nearly a billion condoms a year, has had millions of people tested. What made this possible was the bringing down of drug prices which came from activism.
You’ve been involved in the fight for LGBTI rights in SA, what do you think is the future of the movement?
The problem with the LGBTI rights movement is that it’s stereotyped – it’s a diverse movement and it isn’t different from any other struggle.
Human Rights Watch presented a seminar on violence against LGBTI people in SA. More than half of those attending were working class heterosexual people. They were the people who were most savvy! I think that has come about because of organisations like Equal Education, the Social Justice Coalition, and the TAC.
Our organisations aren’t without homophobia or sexism, but if you create a space where people can be themselves, then LGBTI struggles become part of a broader struggle for equality and freedom.
Can South Africa play a role in fighting for equal rights across the continent?
The government’s recent stand at the UN has been good – it led to a resolution that would require governments to report on education and the steps they’re taking to decriminalise. Initially they supported the Africa group’s homophobia, but national and international pressure led a turnaround on an international human rights question.
But it’s important that South Africa doesn’t play the American role of dominating the continent. Every country is different, it’s people in those countries who have to assert their right to freedom.
How do you feel about the current state of the ANC, the infighting, corruption and the ‘Secrecy Bill’?
The party has taken control of the state apparatus, which has become inefficient and corrupt, and public services is where the corruption is strongest. It has come from the private sector both in SA and abroad, who pay bribes, and from an old corrupt state apparatus. Building an accountable government has been a very hard struggle. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the ANC who want it — but we are a minority.
Regarding the Secrecy Bill, there’s an authoritarianism within our government, wishing to ensure the party stays in power. One of the ways it does this is by making sure that information needed so our country is governed properly is not public. There’s been tremendous changes made to it, over 100 amendments – which shows also the strength of South Africans.
I hope that the ANC can change, if not hopefully a new party will emerge.
Would you support the Democratic Alliance?
Never. There are good people in the party, and they play a very important role within our society as opposition, making sure that the voices of the disenchanted, those who are reactionary, are heard. That’s an important role for a party to play – I don’t like a society where everyone agrees.
However, it represents the interests of the privileged, and it plays on people’s fears. For a party that spoke out against Mbeki’s denialism and claims to be inclusive, they don’t have one member of parliament or councillor living openly with HIV – not that the ANC is much better! But it is not the party representing the majority of people in South Africa, the poor.
The ANC was accused of “airbrushing people out of history” – the role of religious leaders and the Pan Africanist Congress — do you think this is true?
Yes. Not the Pan Africanists, they became irrelevant once they took a racial nationalist position. But what we are now being told is that South Africa was liberated by guns — the armed struggle was never more than a show of fireworks. The mass struggle of people in communities, the trade unions, of the youth movement and religious leaders at a community level changed the balance of forces. Those who led those struggles are being airbrushed out of history.
What campaigns are you involved in at the moment?
The Social Justice Coalition is ensuring that people have safe toilets, safe streets, safe communities. Education is another major area of work and I believe South Africans ought to be involved.
On an international level, the work on Palestinian solidarity is a moral struggle that every person should be aware of because it’s right but also because it has a direct impact on all the politics within our societies.
The South African did an op-ed on the grim picture that’s often painted by the international media of South Africa — do you think people have a negative opinion of the country?
South Africa paints a poor view of itself – we have many things that can be made to go right and we don’t take the opportunity. We’re also no different from any other country, except we are much more beautiful than most!
But you do have a situation where our governments have made white people feel unwelcome. That makes it difficult for young white people to go and work within communities. However, the white community itself has played a very negative role and not understood that black people have been incredibly generous. The black poor are the ones who really struggle against all the difficulties, inequalities, corruption and so on.