In February, 1990, Abdurrazack "Zackie" Achmat went for a routine medical check-up and found out he was HIV positive. The virus at the time was still largely unknown in South Africa and less than 1% of the population was infected. Zackie was given 6 months to live - but after 6 months, he still felt as strong as ever.
When his friend, Simon Nkoli, died from thrush as a complication of HIV in 1998, Zackie realised that the price of certain drugs in South Africa was controlled by foreign pharmaceuticals, and kept far above that of generic versions available - denying the average South African access to life saving medication in a country that now had 3 million HIV positive people. Zackie launched the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to fight this injustice.
In 1999, in protest, he decided to stop taking the expensive antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) that were keeping him alive which he knew the vast majority of South Africans couldn't afford.
The TAC heightened their efforts to lobby the South African government to change its legislation, but large pharmaceuticals like GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol-Myers Squibb in turn sued the government, and lobbied the Clinton administration in the US to threaten sanctions.
A bitter fight ensued, which only got worse when Thabo Mbeki's government, with Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as minister of health, proclaimed antiretroviral drugs were merely toxic and taking them was what made HIV-infected people die. The TAC continued their bitter fight against both their own government and the international pharmaceuticals through civil disobedience, occupying police stations, government offices and ministries. They took their case to the courts, petitioning it was unconstitutional to deprive, amongst other things, pregnant women of medication that would save their children's lives. The court ruled in their favour - a monumental win to the TAC's fight.
Through continued pressure from a now gravely ill Zackie Achmat and the TAC, the government finally announced in 2004 it accepted that HIV causes AIDS and began steps to make ARVs available in public clinics across the country. However, it still took another two years before any significant action was carried out by the government, after pressure from Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, deputy health minister and deputy president, respectively, at the time.
Today, South Africa has the largest antiretroviral therapy programme in the world, and it's with thanks to Zackie Achmat. He is deservingly celebrated around the world as a hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and a lot of people can be grateful to be alive thanks to him.
We thank Zackie for his selflessness and immense service to the people of southern Africa.
Photo credit: Atlantic Sun