05 Dec 21 ICONS: Zackie Achmat
On World Aids Day, 21 ICONS South Africa featured activist Zackie Achmat, co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and the man who fearlessly took the fight for affordable and accessible antiretroviral drugs to governments and big pharmaceuticals — and won, saving millions of lives.
21 ICONS filmmaker and photographer, Adrian Steirn says, “It wasn’t a fight that anyone wanted to champion. It was a fight that nobody wanted to know about. It’s no coincidence that Zackie Achmat is the man who stood up and said ‘I’m alive with HIV’. He was born to be an activist.”
Achmat was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and believed he would die shortly thereafter. By 1996, antiretroviral drugs became available and people who took them in other parts of the world stopped dying. Here in South Africa, however, their prohibitive cost meant they were out of reach of the people who needed them most: the poor, who carried the majority of the HIV burden. It was then that Achmat realised that HIV had become a human rights issue and took up the fight against exploitative drug companies and discriminatory health policies.
He decided not to take antiretrovirals as a protest against drug companies. Not even Nelson Mandela, who visited Achmat at home in 2002 in an effort to persuade him to take his medicine, could change his mind. Achmat continued his refusal until 2003, when a national congress of TAC activists voted to urge him to start taking antiretroviral drugs. But it was a visit by Mandela to an HIV clinic on the Cape Flats that finally changed his mind. “He put on this HIV T-shirt when he visited Khayelitsha Site C clinic. It was a few days before the ANC national conference in 2003 in Stellenbosch. That moment I realised that I could take my pills because what he had done then was to take a stand against a party that he had given his life to,” Achmat says, in reference to the Aids denialism that had prevented a progressive stand and action on HIV treatment.
Shortly after he started taking his medicine, the government announced that it would make it available in the public sector. Another victory was that global pharmaceutical companies agreed to provide access to generic HIV/Aids medicines that would save – and continue to save – millions of lives each day.
These days, Achmat continues to fight for social justice issues such as proper sanitation in South Africa’s poorest townships. He is also active in Equal Education, a movement working for quality and equality in South African education.
Steirn’s portrait of Achmat shows the campaigner surrounded by the words “Alive with HIV”. It will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to his selected charity the Social Justice Coalition.
Over 21 weeks black and white portraits of 21 South African heroes will be shared as collectable posters in the Sunday Times newspaper, and the accompanying short films will air on SABC3 at 6.57pm, just before the 7pm news. Fans can follow the series online through the digital campaign launched by Quirk Joburg on Facebook, on Twitter or at www.21icons.com, where you can find icon profiles and behind the scenes images uploaded weekly. Or you can catch up here.
21 ICONS South Africa is proudly sponsored by Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Nikon, Deloitte, The Sunday Times, SABC3 and the Department of Arts and Culture. Additional credits go to content-creation company Ginkgo Agency.