Zackie Achmat and His Queer Revolution


Iconic queer activist Zackie Achmat has entered the world of parliamentary politics

For many South Africans, Zackie Achmat is best remembered as the co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which waged a valiant battle to compel Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialist government to provide antiretroviral (ARV) medication to people living with HIV.

After coming out as HIV-positive in 1998, Achmat famously vowed not to take ARVs until all South Africans had access to them. (It’s estimated that up to two million South Africans died prematurely of AIDS during the period when the government refused to make antiretrovirals available.)

Achmat was already a veteran activist by then, having joined the 1976 student revolt against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools at the age of 14. As an openly gay member of the ANC, he fought against apartheid, for which he was tortured, imprisoned, and banned by the government of the day.

He also studied film, making the groundbreaking queer film, Apostles of Civilised Vice, and helped found queer organisations like the Association of Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians (ABIGALE) and the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE).

For almost five decades, Achmat has tirelessly fought against stigma and to uphold the rights of queer people, pregnant women, people living with HIV, school learners, and people living in informal settlements, among many others.

Last year, the Capetonian announced that he would be standing as an independent candidate for Parliament in the Western Cape in the 2024 South African national elections. As part of his campaign, he and the Queer Revolution Activist Forum signed a Contract of Work that outlines the actions he plans to take to affirm the rights and interests of queer people.

We spoke to Zackie Achmat about what spurred him to enter the messy world of representational politics, and what still drives his commitment to social justice and equality.

You’ve had a remarkably rich life as an intersectional activist who’s fought for justice in so many spheres. What made you decide to campaign for Parliament, and why as an independent candidate?

People feel representative politics have failed them. So, people have no confidence in political parties. And in our country, it’s made worse by the fact that you don’t know your member of parliament directly. You only know the face of the leader of the party or the presidential candidate. In that sense, the first thing to do is to be able to bring voices of people straight back into Parliament. For me that’s important. For me, going to Parliament is to help rebuild movements that are political and that look at the question of political power as well as governance. Parties will always be with us, but I think the need to get progressive independents into politics is essential.

What would you say is the focus of your campaign?

When you look at South Africa, the median age of our population is 27. What is it that allows a 62-year-old coloured gay uncle who was once upon a time working class and has long tales to tell of queerness and the ANC and political struggle to go to Parliament and to in a sense assist young people? The campaign is about building a serious movement of people who are queer, of people who live with disability, of people who do neighbourhood watches and community kitchens, of youth in action, people who are campaigning against alcohol and substance use disorder… These are the things that have always been close to my heart. And over my lifetime of activism, there hasn’t been any bit of work that I’ve done that has not been with people who are much younger than me.

In one of your campaign videos, you said that you’ll be an MP with integrity. What does integrity mean to you and how does that translate into action as a public representative?

I think the assumption that people are born with integrity is not one that is true. I can only strive to be an MP of integrity. What we’ve seen instead is that our current ruling party, its MPs have been doing so much bad, so much corruption, so much laziness, so much ignorance that one assumes that they are bad people. They’re not bad people. There are people who lack integrity and people who are doing things which they shouldn’t do, egregious acts and little acts of unkindness towards the people they represent. There’s this saying that in war the first casualty is truth but for me, in politics, the first casualty is truth. So, if you talk about integrity, truth must be an element. And then also trying to seek justice for the most vulnerable people and I think it’s something that I strive to do, and I strive to do with others rather than doing it alone. For me, the other part of it is always solidarity. And integrity requires a sense of what community and solidarity means to people.

You’ve said that you are an activist who is queer, not a queer activist. Explain what you mean by that.

There’s two political points in my life. The first time political injustice happened in my life. I just saw it as a terribly scary thing that was happening when I was a child. I witnessed how the police would arrest, in the yard that we were all staying together, the black African people, the black African women. And my fear was that this could happen to my own mother. And then the question was, why wasn’t it happening to my own mother? I was happy that it wasn’t happening to my mother, but I was sad that it was happening to the mother of my playmate. In the 20th century, 10 million black African people were convicted under the pass laws to keep people out of the cities. Ten million people convicted of crimes just to be with families, for instance, wives trying to join husbands, husbands trying to join their wives in a domestic worker’s quarters, and so on. It was that issue that has stayed with me and continues to stay with me to this day. The second thing that has always been with me is, of course, the fact that I’m queer. At age 10 I came out, because I’d fallen in love and the person was murdered. And I told my mom. The way it happened is that I took a handful of Panado pills, swallowed them. And, of course, I started vomiting because I was young. And my mum asked me why [I took them], and I told her, and she said, never speak to anyone of it. And my auntie who raised me, said to me, ‘you will go to hell’. At that point, they were not things that were immediately of political consciousness. Those incidents were incidents of injustice. And, of course, as I went through primary school, which I didn’t write about until 2010, the horrific bullying that I experienced as a learner in primary school… The principal stood by, the teachers stood by… The only place that I found any comfort was among the girls in school. And, you know, those two experiences are what drives me. I’m a man that embodies both patriarchy and struggles against it. I’m a black person, a person of colour, and I have to deal with that. And I’m queer. And I come from a working class background, and now I’m privileged middle class. So, all these things are a part [of me].

Photo of Zackie Achmat by Gary van Wyk

We have good laws and a wonderful constitution that in theory protects LGBTIQ+ people in most areas of life in South Africa. But there is a gap between these laws and the reality of public sentiment and attitudes. How do we bridge that gap?

Perhaps we can start at the point of what has gone right. You know, no person in South Africa today will go to jail for being queer. And if they do there’s serious consequences for the police. So, in relation to being able to have relationships and being able to have a family life without interference, that is an enormous victory. Similarly, even though there’s workplace discrimination, there’s legal protection. That comes out of a struggle, a political struggle, for which I always say, we must thank the ANC. In the queer community, we have many organisations doing good work. You have Health4Men, you have Triangle Project, you have OUT, you have Durban Lesbian and Gay Community Centre, particularly in the urban areas. But what our country and what many parts of the world lack are directly political queer organisations. And by that, I mean queer people who understand that what’s happening in Uganda is not just that queer people are being attacked, but the real problem are the economic problems, the authoritarianism, the corruption… If we as queer people don’t understand what the real drivers of the hate in Uganda or Ghana or Texas or Florida or Hungary are, if we don’t understand that, then we won’t be able to deal with the homophobia or transphobia. We won’t be able to build the alliances that are necessary. So, we need a two-pronged approach: alliances with allies that are political and understand politics, and we need queer people to be part of struggles, whether it’s for food, for water sanitation, and to start to lead those struggles. Because in that way, through the examples we set, it opens up freedom for us, and for everyone as well.

You speak in your Queer Revolution Contract of Work about establishing queer support and safety groups. Tell us about that.

One of the things we know is that people in communities face violence. But the main thing that has come up is the potential and the fear of violence, more than violence itself. It’s like with women in our society; any women walking anywhere feels insecure. Especially when you get onto a train or a bus, or you walk from home to work. In the same way, any queer person or trans person feels unsafe. Now one of the important things of my campaign is that it’s led by women who are part of neighbourhood watch areas and their neighbourhood watch is not a little mini fascistic republic where we go around profiling everyone, it is knowing which house has someone who’s ill, it’s knowing which one has young people who use drugs and their parents are struggling, or the other way around, as well as trying to look out to limit crime. Now, what we don’t have is queer people being part of that, to also help make queer people safe. So, it’s important for us to have queer WhatsApp groups that say, in this area, there are so many people who are giving us trouble. There are the people. Let us also go speak to the neighbourhood watch and say this is happening to us.

Are there any pieces of legislation that you’d like to see enacted in Parliament?

Alcohol substance use disorder is the biggest drug problem in our country. It is the thing that takes food away from people, it leads to violence at home, it leads to violence in the streets and leads to car crashes. It’s a public health problem. It comes out of and comes with mental health illnesses, and it very often is the gateway to other substance use disorders. Now, I’m someone who believes that drugs ought to be decriminalised, but at the same time if you take something like alcohol, we need to ensure that we reduce demand, we reduce supply. And above all, we give young people alternatives. So, the first thing I want to do in Parliament is to write to all the political parties and say I would like all of us to work on making this one of the things that we pass through in the first few months of Parliament. Now, why do queer people need that? Our community is disproportionately affected by substance use disorder because of the discrimination, because of the prejudice, because of the loneliness, because of the unhappiness, because of body fascism, and all those things. So, we have a direct interest in addressing those questions. For me, you cannot be a queer person and not support that. At the same time. You cannot be a doctor in a trauma unit who doesn’t support that. Or in a home, who has several children and goes hungry because the father or the breadwinner takes the money to drink and then comes home and beats them all up. Let’s construct the broadest possible alliance which could have an impact on crime, on health and safety and many different things. As MPs, we can also say to PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) to create separate coaches for women and children. So, if there’s a trans woman, she goes into that coach to be safe. Similarly, you can make sure that there’s access for people living with disability on it. And there can’t be an MP surely, who’d oppose that. So, it’s also finding the common things that even corrupt MPs will vote with you.

Is there any legislation specifically around queer issues that you think is necessary?

On queer issues, I think that it’s not so much legislation, as there is the need to ensure that programs are funded. So, specific attention to a program that looks at how do you keep schools safe for all kids. It’s much more for me about what legislation we can use at the moment – The Equality Act, for instance, which is so broad that it can be used on a range of questions.

One of the issues that I feel should be addressed is banning conversion therapy, misguided and dangerous practices to try ti change people’s sexuality or gender identity. Do you support such a bill?

When it comes to conversion therapy, I need to learn a lot more. I can’t say that I understand everything. I think it’s important to admit when you don’t know. But I’m sure that introducing that bill, which I would put my name to, we’re going to be faced with violent opposition from a range of places. And public participation will not be based on science, it won’t be based on rights, and it won’t be based on empathy. And so being able to build a movement outside before introducing the bill is very important to me. Because if we suddenly introduce the bill and we haven’t done the groundwork, then we won’t have people who can speak to it, the people who are directly affected. I think that’s a very important thing for to do.

What are your thoughts on the status of the fight against HIV in South Africa. Are you satisfied with the progress made, are we on the right track? Are we doing enough?

One of the reasons I’m standing for Parliament is to ensure that the success we reached with the ARV programme continues. And let me tell you when it became a problem for me. When COVID happened, supply chains for all medications suddenly became threatened. And what we face now is state capture, and the general destruction of basic and social services means that the supply chain for medicine is falling apart, and so it’s our duty to ensure that issues around all medications are dealt with. We need to shore up what exists and improve it. But with HIV, we are in a good position in that the rate of infection is coming down.

What else needs to be done to bring the epidemic to an end?

Well, HIV is now more stigmatised than it was in the heyday of the TAC. People aren’t open. You hardly ever see an “HIV Positive” t-shirt anywhere. When we first wore the HIV Positive t-shirt, taxi drivers shouted at us, people on the street would walk to the other side. But within six months, it became a normality. And then, within a year, people started asking you for the t-shirt. It became not simply a symbol of someone living with HIV wearing it, but it became a symbol of solidarity. When I first designed that t-shirt, what went straight into my mind was when Gugu Dlamini was stoned to death [for being HIV positive]. So that t-shirt created solidarity and it became a symbol worldwide. But in our country, it has become an oddity, a rarity. So, we have to destigmatise HIV, particularly in relation to heterosexual men, who avoid looking after their own health, for a whole range of reasons. If I enter Parliament, I would be only the second highest official within the state who lives openly with HIV. [Retired Constitutional Court Judge] Edwin Cameron was the first one, the only one. There’s not a minister, not a leader of a political party, there is not a councillor, there is not an MP, not a director general who lives openly with HIV.

That’s mind-blowing when we consider the country that we live in…

Being the first MP that openly lives with HIV, 40 years into the epidemic, in the country with the highest number of people living with HIV. That’s a problem. Then there’s some specific questions, such as prevention and PrEP. And that is the need for finding ways of getting PrEP out to as many people as possible and to have PrEP injections that last six months or a year. That is going to be a critical part of trying to eradicate the virus. Not that I think we can do that completely, but it certainly would lead to the rate of infection coming down much faster. And there is now a very serious crossover where women living with HIV on ARVs are also obese and also have diabetes. People living with HIV and people living with diabetes and obesity and hypertension – we have a common interest in bringing the price of that medication down. So, when it comes to HIV, I think a movement has to be rebuilt that is health-focused.

There are currently several MPs in Parliament that are out as queer people, but they’re bound by the fact that they are members of a party and have to toe the line. How would you work with these MPs?

I think if any of those parties have queer people in them, bring them together, if there are any people in them who want to be allies with queer people, bring them all together in a caucus. And say, ‘let us work together’. As leaders, as people who are elected, we have a duty to educate ourselves and to assist with the education of others. For me, that is going to be a priority.

Independent candidates in the 2024 election will be included in one of the three ballot papers which voters will be presented with. The National Ballot is to vote for which party you want in the National Assembly (Parliament). The second, the Provincial Ballot, is for which party you want in the provincial government. The third is the new Province-to-National Ballot for seats in the National Assembly reserved for parties and independent candidates from your province. While the first ballot paper will be the same for all South Africans, the last two will be different for each province.

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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