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Zackie Achmat

The Full Story

Zackie Abdurrazack Achmat, was born into an Afrikaans-speaking working-class family on 21 March 1962 in Vrededorp, Johannesburg. He went to live with his grandparents in Cape Town and grew up in Salt River where he attended primary and high schools. His early exposure to politics came from his grandfather, who encouraged him to read The Cape Times and Cape Argus newspapers daily.


Early Activism

At the age of 14 in 1976, Zackie joined the nationwide student revolt that began in Soweto, engaging in protests and class boycotts against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in Black schools. During this time, along with countless others, he experienced the harsh realities of Apartheid policing firsthand, shaping his resolve for change.


Joining the ANC

After the boycotts ended in Coloured schools, Zackie tried to convince his peers to continue the struggle by setting two campuses of Salt River High School on fire. This resulted in his detention by the Security Police along with his comrade, Azam Mohammed. Between 1977 and 1980, Zackie was detained in solitary confinement, tortured, and imprisoned. He was one of the first organisers of the 1980 school boycott which started in Hanover Park.


While detained at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl in May 1980, Zackie was recruited into the African National Congress (ANC). In 1985, he joined the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC. Throughout this period, Zackie actively contributed to the liberation movement, aiding in the establishment of youth movements, unions, underground organizations, as well as health and education programs. These efforts were part of the broader United Democratic Front (UDF).


Zackie met his first long-term partner, Jack Lewis in September 1979. Their relationship was regarded as criminal because it was interracial and same-sex. Jack was banned by the Apartheid government adding another layer of repression to their lives. Their home at 275 Long Street became a home of activism. To this day, Zackie regards Jack as his closest family member.


Shortly after the ANC was unbanned, Zackie learnt that he had HIV. He was told that he had six months left to live. Despite the HIV diagnosis, Zackie later enrolled at the Cape Town Film School and then the University of the Western Cape. He was admitted to study for an Honours degree in English Literature on the basis of the recognition of prior learning because he had not completed school. Zackie was awarded a BA Honours cum laude and a part of his thesis was published as ‘Apostles of Civilised Vice’: ‘Immoral Practices’ and ‘Unnatural Vice’ in South African Prisons and Compounds 1890-1920 (Social Dynamics 1993). Apostles of Civilised was a ground-breaking article that laid the ground for the writing of LGBTIQ history in South and Southern Africa. He later produced a film based on his thesis.


HIV/AIDS: Prejudice and Discrimination

Zackie became acutely aware of the prejudice, discrimination, and violence faced by people living with HIV/AIDS. In 1985, even before his own diagnosis, he helped establish the Belville Community Health Project (BCHP) for municipal workers and their families. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, Zackie, alongside Deena Bosch and Jack Lewis, worked on HIV prevention and fought for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS through the BCHP. He represented BCHP at the National Convention on AIDS in South Africa (NACOSA) and contributed to the law reform chapter of the National AIDS Plan (1994-1999).


In 1994, Zackie joined the AIDS Law Project (ALP) under the leadership of Edwin Cameron. At the ALP, he was responsible for helping to set legal precedents on informed consent, correctional supervision, and employment rights for people living with HIV. Zackie also served on the South African Law Reform Commission on HIV/AIDS and established the AIDS Legal Network. He regularly attended and made submissions to Parliament. Through the AIDS Consortium led by Morna Cornell, Zackie became familiar with the work of more than 100 organisations and health facilities between 1993 and 1998.


Equality for LGBTIQ+ people

In 1993, Midi Achmat, Theresa Raizenberg, Gerda de Klerk, Bassey Nelson, Maphelo Landingwe, Funeka Soldaat, Jack Lewis, and Zackie formed the Association of Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians (ABIGALE). At the outset, ABIGALE was the first non-racial working-class queer organisation across Cape Town’s townships. ABIGALE was part of the movement to win equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation. In December 1994, Zackie, Phumi Mtetwa, and Graeme Reid convened the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE).


Highlights of his work with others in the NCGLE between 1994 and 1999 include campaigning for the inclusion of the sexual orientation clause in the final Constitution which prohibits unfair discrimination. The NCGLE also achieved the right to medical aid benefits for same-sex partners, the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1998, and immigration-related rights for same-sex couples through the Courts. Further work included employment rights, pension benefits, including sexual orientation in the Refugee Act, the ability for lesbians to bear children and LGBTIQ+ people to adopt children. A significant amount of this work occurred through Parliament and government departments.


Zackie was also a founding member of the Employment Equity Alliance, which campaigned for the Employment Equity Bill. This legislation enabled employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, eliminated workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, improved the status of African, Coloured, and Indian communities, and facilitated employment for people living with HIV. The Black Sash, the AIDS Legal Network, AIDS Consortium, AIDS Law Project, Disabled People South Africa, Cosatu, and others joined with the NCGLE to ensure that the Medical Schemes Act prohibits discrimination against pregnant women, people with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. No longer was Parliament an instrument of corporations and the powerful. Parliament became a home to the most vulnerable.


The Right to Life, Access to HIV Treatment, and Openness

In 1998, Zackie co-founded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to ensure that pharmaceutical companies make medication including antiretrovirals (ARVs) affordable to save the lives of working-class people living with HIV. At that time one month’s ARVs cost between R4500 to R10 000 (for the latest medications), which meant that only the richest could afford the life-saving treatment while the poor died. TAC also demanded that the government roll out a national programme to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. 


Openness and HIV

The brutal murder of Gugu Dlamini, because she declared her HIV status publicly, could have driven people living with HIV underground. TAC took a different route, a tactic learnt in the MWT of the ANC, when attacked for speaking the truth then resist the attackers with defiance. Zackie designed the purple HIV-Positive t-shirt which became a symbol of resistance against discrimination and prejudice, drug companies globally, and HIV denialism at home.


Then, the unthinkable happened, President Thabo Mbeki for whom Zackie campaigned in the 1999 general election, denied that HIV causes AIDS. Mbeki refused to allow the state to provide working-class people, living with HIV and dying from AIDS-related illnesses, medication to save their lives. Millions of people became infected, desperately ill, and, died brutal deaths because Mbeki, his late Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Essop Pahad, Thami Mseleku, Alec Erwin, Peggy Nkonyeni, Sibongile Manana, and many others. 


TAC used the mechanism of state, law, and struggle to help ensure that the country now boasts a universal ARV programme with over five million people receiving treatment.


Movements for Change

In 2008, Zackie initiated two civil society movements: Equal Education (EE) and the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Both movements emerged from the dire consequences of inadequate service delivery and infrastructure deficits. EE mobilised learners and parents to advocate for safety, sanitation, access to libraries, and inclusive education. Notably, their efforts led to the promulgation of the Regulations Relating to Minimum Uniform Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure in 2013, which legally obligated the state to address the school infrastructure crisis in South Africa.


The SJC focused on advocating for constitutional rights, such as life, dignity, equality, freedom, and safety, particularly for those living in informal settlements, using sanitation as a lens to address broader issues.


In 2011, Zackie established Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), an advocacy organisation meaning "Dare to Know" in isiXhosa. NU works towards affordable housing in well-located urban spaces through policy research, community organization, public advocacy, litigation, and legal services.


In 2016, the Reclaim the City campaign was launched, with the aim of addressing Apartheid spatial planning within Cape Town's inner city and fighting for desegregation and affordable housing. Zackie, along with NU, took legal action against the Western Cape Provincial Government and the City of Cape Town to halt the sale of prime publicly-owned land, known as the Tafelberg site, to a private developer.


Currently, he serves as the director of #UniteBehind, a coalition of activists from various people's movements formed in 2017. Focused on transport justice and investigating state capture at PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa), this coalition strives to bring about meaningful change in South African society.


Zackie Achmat's commitment to justice, equality, and freedom has shaped his remarkable journey as an activist. From his early involvement in student protests against Apartheid to his groundbreaking work in HIV/AIDS advocacy, LGBTIQ+ rights, education, and housing, Zackie has consistently fought for the rights and dignity of marginalized communities.


Now, as an independent candidate for parliament in the 2024 South African National elections, he hopes to bring his experience and dedication to Parliament.

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