Lifelong activist Zackie Achmat said he was honoured to have received recognition from the University of Cape Town, but that the award wasn’t just for him but also for his mentors and peers.
UCT awarded an honorary doctorate (LLD honoris causa) to Abdurrazak “Zackie” Achmat at a graduation ceremony last week.
“It is a privilege to get an honour like this from UCT but it would be a mistake to imagine that it is one only for myself. (It is for) people who influenced me, educated me and helped guide me. Not only me but a whole generation of people. It is really a thank you to them.”
He said his first boyfriend, Jack Lewis, had been a deep political influence and, “probably the person I learnt most from.”
Now 55 years old, Mr Achmat said one of the reasons he first got involved in the student protests in the 1970s was teenage rebellion. “As a gay kid, I was an outsider,” he said.
One day at school, his teacher called him to see something on television. It was the student protests against the apartheid government wanting to impose Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at schools.
“I saw kids getting killed and then in Cape Town in August the same thing happened. The rebellion against one’s own home language is a very difficult one. The general strike of 1976 was the best political lesson for me about unity between workers, students and communities. It led to me being part of a group of students who would start burning schools.”
This act of protest would see Mr Achmat go to jail in 1977 for the first time at the age of 15. He spent 14 days in solitary confinement.
Later, in 1977, he was arrested again under the Terrorism Act.
“It was a very hard period for me. In 1978 I was trying to help Rylands High School students organise a boycott and went to jail again for six months in solitary confinement in Pollsmoor prison.
“I then went to work in an advice office in Hanover Park. It became the centre for organising the 1980s school boycott. We had enormous political debate, it was like being in a real school. It was the space where I was recruited to the ANC.
“In 1985 we started the Bellville community health project. Apart from having a primary health care clinic, one of the key questions we started raising was about HIV.”
That led to Mr Achmat joining the Progressive Primary Health Care network. “I was diagnosed in early 1990 with HIV. The doctor tells me, ‘six months and you’ll be dead’. I came home from Joburg, got into bed and saw all the videos I could watch. Six months later I’m healthier than I’d been before. Then I started rethinking what I was going to do with my life.”
As a result of this, Mr Achmat went to film school at UWC and in 1994 joined the Aids Law project. He also co-founded (and later directed) the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality.
He said 1996 was a critical year. “It was the watershed where triple (ARV) therapy became available. I was starting to become sick and got depression. People were dying and the critical reason for that was the drug companies.”
In 1998, Mr Achmat then went on to be one of the co-founders of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
In recent years, Mr Achmat, has been instrumental in the formation of social movements, Equal Education, the Social Justice Coalition, Ndifuna Ukwazi and Reclaim The City, focusing on schools, policing, sanitation infrastructure and access to urban land.
For Mr Achmat, the struggle for integrated urban land in areas such as Salt River is a particularly personal one. He grew up in an industrial working class suburb, that was mixed. “For most of the time that I lived in Salt River we had about 10 or 12 people living in a single bedroom flat. At one stage we had 20 people living in it.”
He said his neighbours, who were bookkeepers, at the time, were considered middle class. His teachers also lived up the road. Although he ran away from home, he still remembers the Salt River community fondly. He also attended school there, first at Salt River Muslim Primary, Wesley Primary and later at Salt River High School.
“It was a working class suburb in which the city was owned by us, even though the state constantly attempted to exclude us. When people are forced out onto the Cape Flats, their imagination of a world disappears.
“It becomes dusty, full of sand and people do their best to create a community out of that. They become labour reservoirs for the wealthy. I can tell you what happened in every street in Salt River.”
Today, he said, there was another kind of displacement eroding the communities of the inner city in Cape Town: gentrification. “The sense of community that was there is being eroded by forced displacement by what people call gentrification,
“The struggle of the people in Bromwell Street, Albert Road and so on are very personal things because it is about the destruction of a community. Don’t get me wrong, I want that area densified, I want it beautiful, I want it developed.
“I think it ought to incorporate everyone.”
Currently Mr Achmat works with an activist organisation called Unite Behind which is based in Salt River.
In a press statement by UCT last week, Professor Hugh Corder, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Innovation, said: “Zackie Achmat’s life has been devoted to the struggle for the building of a new social order based on dignity, equality and non-racism. He is indeed a worthy recipient of this honour.”