S. African AIDS activist makes a striking impact

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.

When he learned he was HIV-positive in 1990, he spent six months in bed watching videos, deeply depressed. Then he immersed himself in activism. When Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president, in 1994, Achmat helped lobby for a provision in the new constitution prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The triumph of the movement against apartheid was sweet, euphoric and brief, as South Africans were forced to reckon with pressing problems: creating a multicultural society, addressing poverty and coming to terms with the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Achmat developed AIDS in 1997.

"To discover you have a life-threatening illness when you fought for freedom is a cruel irony of history," Achmat said. "A country that fought hard against apartheid, and triumphed, now must fight this battle."

Mandela was largely silent on the fight against AIDS during his presidency but today has emerged as one of the world's most high-profile advocates. His successor, President Thabo Mbeki, provoked howls of global disapproval when he expressed doubt over the connection between HIV and AIDS. And while the well-to-do have access to anti-retrovirals, ordinary South Africans do not, a disparity retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called the "new apartheid."

In 1998, to try to spur change, a Zulu activist named Gugu Dlamini announced she was HIV-positive. She was knifed to death by neighbors, some reportedly her ex-boyfriends. It was around this time that Achmat created the Treatment Action Campaign with a handful of other activists.

"We realized HIV is political," he said. "It's about how men treat women, how children are treated in society, how companies treat workers."

Today some 5 million South Africans are infected with HIV, and an estimated 600 die of AIDS complications daily. A friend of Achmat's died of the disease during his U.S. tour.

At the Los Angeles meeting, Achmat pleaded with the roomful of suited philanthropists to help.

"You people here, as donors, have a duty," he said. "I've become absolutely shameless about asking for money. You have lots of money and your government's not doing enough."

The guilt trip seemed to hit home.

"Hearing this makes me want to go out and rob a bank," Joyce Deep, a political consultant for Robert Redford, said at the meeting with Achmat. "You're just so effective."

"He's an amazing speaker," said Robert Estrin, the president of the John Lloyd Foundation, which has been involved in AIDS policy projects in Romania and China and works to improve access to AIDS medications. "I've been trying to meet Zackie for two years. I'm a great admirer of his."

Phil Wilson, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute, which focuses on AIDS and people of African descent, had his picture taken with Achmat along with actress Victoria Rowell.

"His speech was very compelling," Wilson said. "Here's a man who's living with AIDS in South Africa, who understands that we have to fight AIDS wherever it is -- in Africa, Asia, South-Central and East L.A."

Afterward, Achmat rushes back to his off-Sunset hotel, sinks into a plush chair and rubs his dark eyes, sighing with exhaustion. He wants to change clothes, but there's no time. He has to rush off, in late-afternoon traffic, to a Culver City studio for a BBC interview.

There, he dons headphones and tells the BBC World Service his joy at the news from South Africa.

In one rather clumsily worded question, the BBC interviewer asks if the availability of drugs might make South Africans careless about observing safe sex.

Achmat rolls his eyes and indulges in a little fun at the interviewer's expense, launching into more detail than the interviewer might want to know about Achmat's romantic life with his boyfriend. The interviewer seems to cringe on the air and Achmat's mischievous smile deepens.

An early sunset is coloring the sky pink over the freeway as Achmat heads back to his hotel, to finally change clothes for a cocktail party at the Hollywood Hills home of a producer.

He pulls out a CD and begins to hum a familiar anti-apartheid anthem that his movement gave new lyrics, criticizing President Mbeki for not moving quickly to address the AIDS crisis.

An old protest song, revised for a new cause.

"This CD made the government really cross," Achmat chuckled, relishing the memory. "This is what I was dancing to this morning."

He sings the chorus: "We'll give you a chance to change your ways."

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