buying life, if you can afford it

Zachie Achmat still won't take his pills, even though Nelson Mandela has asked him to. It's part of a very big plan, and it seems to be working, since, as he says, "The country is realizing that people can actually buy life, and that this is unacceptable."

The class, racial or economic foundation of the world's response to the AIDS pandemic has rarely, if ever, been illustrated so dramatically as it has been and continues to be in South Africa. A heroic activist in the country with the highest official count of AIDS-infected people in the world, Achmat has "dragged his government into savings its people," fighting denial at all levels [the goverment of Thabo Mbeki questions the very existence of HIV as the cause of AIDS and minimizes the problem otherwise] and demanding access to AIDS medications for all regardless of ability to pay.

He needs those drugs himself, and he can afford them, but in 1998 he vowed not to take them until everyone in South Africa could. While that day may be dawning, at least in his own country, it may in the end be too late for the man most responsible for what would be a very great victory, one which would honor that associated with Mandela, who now calls Achmat a role model.

The parallels between the campaign and the A.N.C. are haunting. The [Treatment Action Campaign, of which Achmat is chairman] is one of the few organizations still wearing the A.N.C.'s mantle of activism. Its leaders are using techniques they learned in the anti-apartheid struggle. Mr. Achmat was jailed several times in the 1970's, and spent the 1980's living underground as an A.N.C. activist. The campaign is fighting an evil even more formidable and deadly than apartheid, and one that, absent universal access to AIDS treatment, is just as selective in bringing most of the suffering down upon South Africa's poor.