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Zackie Achmat's South Africa

In this guest blog, the writer sets out how Zackie Achmat's work as part of Treatment Action Campaign is evidence of a truly liberal democracy.

Many people are skeptical about the prospects of liberal democracy in South Africa. There is a feeling that South Africa is just a democracy 'on paper'. As a result, many people justify not meaningfully participating in our democracy because they feel that it doesn't really matter. The Constitution, the Courts... 'it's all rigged against us anyway'. This is totally wrong, and there's a beautiful story from the early years of our democracy which proves this.

In the early 2000s, the HIV pandemic struck South Africa hard. The President [Thabo Mbeki] at the time was an intellectual and a neoliberal in his economics. He was also paranoid, aloof and completely botched the response to HIV - he ultimately became an HIV/AIDS denialist. There was a particular point where a drug to prevent mother-to-child transmission had been offered to the SA government for free for 5 years, and the government attempted to restrict it to only a few pilot sites. In 2002, the government was taken to court by a civil society group called the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which had been formed in 1998. They won, and the government was forced to expand access to the drug.

This story encapsulates how deeply liberal democracy had taken root in South Africa for the following reasons:

  • The case hinged on the liberal provisions of the Constitution that citizens had a right to healthcare but that that right had to be realised progressively and reasonably when resources allow - it isn't populism and it isn't old school atomic liberalism either. You can read more about it here.

  • A civil society group was able to organise against the President and take the government to court and win. The government complied with the Court's orders. At the time, the ANC had a two-thirds majority of the seats in Parliament and could have simply amended the Constitution if they wanted to. They didn't. Ordinary citizens, not even in Parliament, were able to use their freedom of speech and to fight the government and win.

  • The leader of the TAC was Zackie Achmat. Achmat is a racial minority - he is Coloured (a mixed race group) and descended from enslaved people. He is also an apostate - he was raised Muslim but left the religion. He is also gay and was instrumental in ensuring protections and equality for gay people under the 1996 Constitution. He is also openly HIV positive himself. The TAC was multiracial - its two other leaders were white and black, and the group was deeply represented in all communities.

Three years later, the ANC passed gay marriage in order to comply with the Constitution's explicit prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Again, they could've just amended the Constitution to remove it (they still had more than 2/3 of seats). Zackie married his white partner in 2008. The leader of the opposition, Helen Zille, attended his wedding, as did Judge Edwin Cameron. who officiated. Edwin Cameron is also gay and openly HIV positive. In the same year he officiated Zackie Achmat's wedding, he was elected to the Constitutional Court by the President who replaced Mbeki when he was ousted. I mention the race of all these people because I wanted to drive home the point that these are racial minorities - both from an oppressed minority group and an oppressor minority group - and that that mostly didn't matter.

So I just want to recap exactly what happened here. Within the first decade of our Constitutional democracy, a gay, racial-minority, descendent of enslaved people, apostate was able to lead a multi-racial coalition to challenge the South African President at the height of his power and win, saving thousands of lives. Despite not really having to, the Parliament then doubled down on the liberal provisions of the Constitution relating to protections of the very minority group(s) which that activist belonged to, both through legislation and symbolically. None of the people I mentioned in this story were crushed for their dissent or belonging to marginalised groups. All of them were allowed to continue to be active in politics and even affiliate with opposition leaders and were given real power in the society. Zackie is now running for Parliament as an independent.

This is an exceptional story. What is exceptional here is not South Africa itself, but rather the liberal democracy which has already taken root here. Specifically, a great and truly liberal Constitution, and enough people who have agreed to mostly deal with their issues through the Constitution and the institutions it creates. Try to understand that in the early 90s, everyone was convinced that South Africa would tear itself apart in a bloody civil war. Try to honestly benchmark what the realistic expectations for this situation would have been - given that it's an African country within a decade post-independence. The difference is liberal democracy.

South Africa actually does have a liberal democracy. Ordinary people, when they are properly organised, can win. We shouldn't be skeptical or cynical at all. We should bet on South Africa.

This blog was first published on Reddit on 5 March 2024 and is republished here with permission.

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