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S. African AIDS activist makes a striking impact

Zackie Achmat inspires L.A. audiences and celebrates a triumph won at home.

November 24, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Like anti-apartheid protesters, Zackie Achmat was willing to die for his cause, and today he is alive in spite of it.

So it was all the sweeter for the renowned South African AIDS activist to learn, during a visit to Los Angeles last week, that his movement has just won an unexpected battle -- if not yet the war -- in the struggle to bring AIDS medications to his countrymen.

Grinning broadly, Achmat rushed excitedly into a conference room filled with California philanthropists, eager to tell them what he just learned: The South African government has ordered the limited first steps of a program to eventually provide universal access for HIV-positive South Africans to life-saving anti-retroviral medications -- a program that, if fully implemented, would represent an official about-face after years of government inaction.

"Have you heard the news? The government released the plan," Achmat told a foundation representative. "In five years there will be access in every part of the country. It's huge!"

Now everyone in the room was listening.

"I'm going to stand, because I feel like dancing today," Achmat said exuberantly, rising before them in a maroon bush shirt, straight-leg jeans and black patent leather shoes, his smile spreading across his high, honey-colored cheekbones.

"Because it's really a historic moment for South Africa," he said. "When they called me at my hotel, I danced. And I'm a black brother who hasn't got rhythm!"

That Achmat, 41, is healthy enough to dance is itself a cause for celebration. Achmat spent years pressuring his government with a notorious medical strike, refusing to take medications since 1998.

He kept up his strike, even as he battled life-threatening AIDS-related illnesses. And even after Nelson Mandela sat at his bedside in July 2002 and pleaded for Achmat to give in as he suffered his worst illness, an acute respiratory infection that eventually was quelled by massive doses of antibiotics.

Achmat finally did start taking AIDS medications Aug. 30 at the unanimous request of his movement's leadership once his government pledged to announce a universal AIDS treatment plan.

He says he already feels a rush of new energy, which has come in handy on this trip, a 16-day round of fund-raisers, interviews, meetings and receptions in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and then back to New York. The night before, he had headlined a fund-raiser -- at which he was introduced by Jackson Browne and Blair Underwood -- that earned $50,000 along with a matching $50,000 grant from Carlos Santana, who funds the Artists for a New South Africa's Amandla AIDS Fund.

It doesn't hurt that Achmat is articulate and funny or that people find him charming and handsome.

"He's like a hero for us," says Trish Karlin, the programs director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which provides $1.5 million in annual funding to South African AIDS programs, at the philanthropists' meeting with Achmat, which was held at Creative Artists Agency last week.

"He's an incredibly dynamic leader," she said. "The role of activists pushing this forward is what has forced social change."

Achmat represents a huge social movement in South Africa: Members of the Treatment Action Campaign, which he co-founded five years ago, have collectively cajoled, protested, heckled, mocked, shamed and even serenaded the government in their effort to get anti-retroviral medication for all HIV-infected South Africans.

It was Achmat's medical strike that lent him the moral gravitas to make him the movement's figurehead, because he showed he was willing to share the lot of his countrymen and share their struggle with AIDS-related illnesses.

"I would not have recommended anyone else do the same," Achmat said in his burry Cape Town accent, a British cadence that falls somewhere between Scotland and Liverpool. "It wasn't just a protest action, it was an act of conscience."

Like many South Africans, he was inspired by Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison under apartheid and whom Achmat calls "a saint." Mandela has rallied to Achmat's cause and calls him a "role model."

Whatever mutual admiration the two might share, their paths to leadership could hardly have been more different.

Achmat grew up the son of a factory worker during apartheid in a "colored" district of South Africa's Cape Town, his heritage a mix of Malaysian, Indian, Irish, German and Khoi, the African tribe once known as Hottentot bushmen.

He took to the streets during anti-apartheid protests and at 15 attempted to burn down his color-segregated high school. At 16, he worked as a street prostitute for six months -- something he now attributes to his lack of role models for healthy gay sexual development.

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