Zackie Achmat,  Honorary Degree Recipient

Zackie Achmat (right) is presented with an honorary degree by President Anthony W. Marx.

Doctor of Humane Letters

Zackie Achmat is founder and former chairman of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and remains a member of the organization’s national secretariat. The TAC’s 16,000 members are dedicated to educating the public about HIV and AIDS, improving government policies toward the disease and expanding patients’ access to treatment. The New Yorker has called Achmat “the most important dissident in the country since Nelson Mandela.”

Known for wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase HIV Positive, to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of the disease, TAC activists have won important court cases, including one that has made mother-to-child transmission prevention treatments available through public clinics nationwide. The organization is credited with pressuring the AIDS-denialist government under former President Thabo Mbeki to begin making antiretroviral treatments available to all South Africans; Achmat famously pledged not to take his own antiretroviral drugs until government policy was changed in 2003. Forty-four TAC members, including Achmat, were arrested after the XVI International AIDS Society Conference in Toronto in August 2006, in their call for certain officials to be held responsible for the death of an HIV-positive prison inmate who had been denied treatment. On Aug. 24, 2006, the TAC declared a Global Day of Action that galvanized thousands of marchers and protesters in five nations.

In developing the TAC’s collaborative, localized structure and civil disobedience tactics, Achmat has drawn from his experiences as an anti-apartheid and gay-rights activist, starting at age 14. In the early 1990s, he founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. He directed the AIDS Law Project at the University of the Witwatersrand before founding the TAC with 10 other activists in 1998. In 2008, he jointly founded the Social Justice Coalition to promote the constitutional rights of South Africa’s poor and unemployed. He is also the current director of the Centre for Law & Social Justice in Cape Town.

Achmat’s honors include a Desmond Tutu Leadership Award, the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights and a fellowship from Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. In writing to accept this honorary degree from Amherst, Achmat added, “I trust that it is also a recognition of the work of thousands of activists, mostly anonymous, but not without courage, personality and dignity.”