A great story about Zackie Achmat

Date: Thu, 12 Dec 2002 21:51:24 +0200
Subject: [viva_hiv_aids] FW: [CCS-l] A great story about Zackie Achmat

from Makino

------ Forwarded Message ------
> From: "Centre for Civil Society Centre for Civil Society"
> Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2002 16:06:30 +0200
> To:
> Subject: [CCS-l] A great story about Zackie Achmat
> Mandisa Mbali 12/10/02 12:14PM
> A good man
> 10 December 2002 07:17
> Zackie Achmat is not hungry, but tucks into the chocolate cake just the
> same. Achmat is HIV positive, yet refuses to take the antiretroviral
> drugs that could prolong his life. But he does boost his immune system
> with protein -- with chocolate cake.
> Achmat is not a shanty dweller unable to afford the drugs; he is not a
> so-called "Aids dissident" who believes the drugs are poison; he is not
> mad, and he is not suicidal. Zackie Achmat, according to Nelson Mandela,
> is a national hero: an ordinary man whose extraordinary resolve could
> help save thousands of African lives, at the cost of his own.
> At a reception in Johannesburg last week, the former president turned
> to Achmat and asked him, with cameras rolling, to take the
> antiretrovirals. "Give me, as an old man, your promise that you will now
> take your medicine." Not for the first time, the national hero, dressed
> as ever in T-shirt and jeans, said no.
> A few days later, in a suburban Johannesburg garden, between mouthfuls
> of cake, he explains why. "It is a personal issue of conscience. I have
> become middle class but my brothers are working class, and if they were
> infected they could not afford the medicines."
> Twelve years after he was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes
> Aids, and given six months to live, Achmat has turned his health into a
> hammer against the government. All his life he has fought authority, but
> never did he expect to fight his own party, the African National
> Congress (ANC), or the leader he campaigned for, Thabo Mbeki.
> Mandela is not alone in fearing that this will be a fight to the death.
> South Africa braced itself for an emotional funeral several months ago
> when the 40-year-old became too weak to do more than whisper, yet still
> rebuffed friends' pleas to relent.
> The scythe missed and Achmat recovered -- even put on weight -- but
> sometimes the hands shake and the strain shows. "I wouldn't recommend
> anyone to take this stand. There is no longer a need."
> There is no longer a need because the organisation that he chairs, the
> Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), is winning its battle. The drug
> companies have lowered their prices, and the government has promised to
> distribute antiretrovirals. But until that promise is kept, Achmat will
> not take his medicine.
> It has been a long, strange fight waged in courtrooms, hospitals and
> cabinet meetings. But stranger still is the odyssey of the teenage
> rioter who became a prisoner, a prostitute, a gay leader and finally,
> for some, a saviour.
> Achmat's unease at such superlatives was visible at the Johannesburg
> reception. He awkwardly shuffled his feet as 700 doctors, business
> executives and journalists gave him a standing ovation. As he says in
> his soft but fast Cape Town cadence, many others have joined the fight,
> not least of them Mandela.
> The stakes are colossal. HIV/Aids has infected at least 4,5 million
> South Africans, more than in any other country. The 360 000 who died
> last year may only be a prelude to a steep upward curve that will
> devastate a generation in its prime and turn millions of children into
> orphans.
> The crisis is as unprecedented as it is complex. A society and economy
> poisoned by decades of apartheid was bound to be hit hard. But not this
> hard. Some 70 000 babies are born with HIV each year, and Johannesburg
> is so short of space for the dead that it is reportedly considering
> putting disused mine shafts into service as catacombs.
> President Mbeki's suspicion that HIV is not a cause of Aids but a con
> by drug companies hungry for profits has been blamed for crippling the
> state's response. Doctors have been prevented from giving
> antiretrovirals and other drugs because the president deemed them too
> toxic.
> There was little to suggest at Mbeki's inauguration in June 1999 that a
> sick ANC cadre in Cape Town would become his dogged foe. Of mixed
> descent, his mother a garment maker, his father a furniture maker,
> Achmat began his political career at the age of 14 when he tried to burn
> his school during the uprising against apartheid education.
> They were violent, chaotic times and, when not in jail, the son of
> conservative Muslims was sleeping on the streets or in a stranger's bed.
> "Yes, I was a sex worker. I have never hidden that."
> It was when he emerged from the underground in 1990, a Trotskyist
> turned social democrat, that he was diagnosed with HIV.
> "The doctor said I had six months to live. I went home and took out
> every film I could -- I had always wanted to make films. But instead of
> getting worse, I got better."
> Reprieved, Achmat flung himself into a gay rights campaign, took a
> degree in English at the University of Western Cape, and canvassed for
> Mbeki after Mandela stepped down from the ANC leadership. "I thought
> he'd make a good leader."
> In November 1998 he fell seriously ill with thrush, an opportunistic
> infection common to those with HIV, and came close to a painful death of
> sores and wasting away, unable to swallow. Friends chipped in for drugs,
> which he took, and he recovered.
> Later, doctors said he should go on a permanent course of
> antiretrovirals, but by now Mbeki's Aids policy, or lack of one, had
> emerged. "At first I said yes because I wasn't feeling well, but then I
> thought about it and said no." The people he grew up with were falling
> sick but did not have middle-class friends to buy them drugs -- why
> should he be different?
> TAC used legal and moral arguments to shame the pharmaceutical
> multinationals into allowing South Africa to import cheaper generic
> copies of patented Aids drugs. It was an epic victory, and one that
> raised hopes that millions of Aids sufferers would finally be able to
> gain access to drugs that could prolong their lives.
> But there were more battles to be fought. Mbeki continued to keep drugs
> such as nevirapine, which can halve the incidence of mother-to-child
> transmission of the virus, from the public sector.
> "The central problem," says Achmat, "is the absence of political will.
> Why is the president like this?" He smiles and plays with his spoon.
> "Unfortunately, there is no God, so you won't get an answer there. We
> may never know."
> Some say that Mbeki's intellectual vanity was seduced by the
> "dissident" scientists who challenged Aids orthodoxy; some say he
> resents the strain that the drugs would exert on the exchequer. Achmat's
> theory is this: "The president doesn't want to believe that people in
> Africa have a lot of sex."
> Whatever the reason, TAC rebutted each government objection and showed
> that existing funds to fight Aids were enough -- if only they were spent
> properly. Mbeki refused to meet the activists, but the official
> denigration has evaporated since Mandela visited a very sick Achmat at
> home earlier this year.
> "We were really under siege, and Nelson has given us protection. It was
> not for us that he did it. He's not interested in opposing the
> government. He's interested in doing what is right." Despite his
> gratitude, Achmat has twice refused the old man's request to take the
> drugs.
> Chastened by the international outcry, last April the South African
> cabinet announced a U-turn and promised to distribute antiretrovirals.
> Yet in some provinces they remain unavailable because officials fear the
> president's wrath, and avoidable deaths continue, says Achmat. In
> addition to the drugs, the government needs to do what other African
> countries did long ago: coordinate a national response, train nurses and
> doctors in Aids care, and urge people to take HIV tests.
> More recently, TAC has toned down its criticism as it senses a move by
> the government to realise its promises -- but still has a February
> deadline for a campaign of civil disobedience if there is no real
> change.
> For the chairman, the stakes do not get more personal. Ask what will
> persuade him to take his medicine and the body stiffens, the smile
> vanishes. "As soon as it is feasible," he says; a calculated ambiguity.
> His death would be a public relations disaster for a government which
> knows that the next time Achmat falls sick, it may be too late for drugs
> to stay the scythe. And a rebel with a cause will have become a martyr
> to it. - Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001
> Mandisa Mbali
> (Research Intern)
> The Centre for Civil Society
> Rm 176, MTB
> University of Natal
> Durban
> 4041
> Ph: +27 31 260 2825
> Fax: +27 31 260 2502
> E-mail: mbalim1@nu.ac.za
> Website: http://www.nu.ac.za/ccs
> www.nu.ac.za/ccs

* cf.Achmat, Zackie(in Japanese)