Off to parliament you go, Zackie from Salt River


Off to parliament you go, Zackie from Salt River

Zackie Achmat has never tolerated injustice. Fearless and tireless, he is a protagonist with a well-worn cloak of hard knocks and noble aspirations. Now he wants to be an MP, writes ANGELA TUCK.


ZACKIE Achmat invited me to lunch. Sunday lunch.

But first I had to click “ok” to join a WhatsApp group named “Zackie2024 lunch”, where I discovered that another 21 people had also been invited to Sunday lunch. And that the lunch wasn’t in 2024 but in 2023. And that it wasn’t so much at lunchtime as from 2pm onwards.

And Zackie wasn’t on the WhatsApp group. But Malcolm and Moenieba were. Never heard of them. And Bradley and Bovain. Now Bovain, I knew!

Along with the “I can’t make it cos…” and “I may have to leave early cos…” came familiar names: a blend of best friends, just friends and comrades.

In this instance, “comrades” covers those I met in the mid-80s over many a bounced smoke, points of order, meetings, running, campaigns, hiding, sit-ins, marches, printers and too many funerals. And dark rooms.

Not just actual dark rooms — those mini labs behind black curtains where chemicals and tense silence lived above the white paper sheets slowly exposing more apartheid dirt — but meetings in dark rooms, at night. Candles and lowlights with the odd highlight like not-Dr Pallo Jordan entering via the back kitchen door as a secret visitor from exile.

The “Zackie2024 lunch” group text explained: “You’re invited to a lunch in support of Zackie Achmat's campaign for national elections 2024 — from 2pm, Sunday 4 June. It’s a community-building lunch in support of the #Zackie2024 campaign.”

Let’s just call the WhatsApp group what it was: 21 (left-leaning) voters. And me (left-left).

The invitation ended with “Let’s shine our little lights — and each draw on our networks and skills to lean in to this initiative. #FixTheState #ReclaimParliament” (lots of emojis here including a raised fist, a glass of wine, a plate of salad and party ribbons, all brought home with the scales of justice).

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

The Cape brought a mini monsoon that day and the icy wind blew me and my little light “below the line” to the left-leaning suburb of Observatory. Introductions, kisses and handshakes went on from 2pm as the 21 voters trickled in to the big, beautiful, warm Victorian house.

I sought out Zackie and found him in an armchair, silent in the winter shadows of the corner. Dressed top-to-toe in black, he cut the figure of of a brooding character plucked from the pages of a mystery novel. This protagonist wore a cloak of hard knocks and noble aspirations.

Until he hoisted himself out of the chair and smiled to greet me. And there he was. Zackie. Big light. Big smile. Big presence. It’s been 35 years since I last saw him in person, and I attempt to take on the face of a deep thinker rather than a groupie.

For I am not a groupie. I have met public figures before, such as the French ambassador (fourth-last one), and even conversed with author Alexandra Fuller once. But Zackie is not pie in the global sky. He says: “I am just a Coloured from Salt River”. Canalla.

There was a big suck-in of white breath at that point.

Zackie from Salt River interrupted his mutton biryani (served on a delicate vintage floral plate, mind you) to speak to us 22 voters. With his hands holding the back of the chair, he spoke. And spoke. My friend would have liked a theme or a clear focus and she said he spoke for 90 minutes straight.

I admit that my eyes travelled the room to assess the décor, squinting at times to make out a painting or a framed photo. These simple flower arrangements are a lovely touch, I thought. Could that guy be Malcolm? What’s that on the mantel? Almost everything was so light and soft and genteel here in Obs. Not a dark room.

So, I may have missed a detail or two in those 90 minutes which Could-I-Just-Say could not have been a whole hour-and-a-half cos I don’t sit still without a drama to hold my attention. And Zackie delivered no drama.

No drama if you exclude how challenging it actually is for a citizen to be a national election candidate as an independent. Or if you exclude the bullet points on what the Mbeki years gave and denied us. Or the hundred years of Msholozi …

I knew all that. Almal weet.

Many of the 21 had left by the time D opened his laptop to show Zackie some clever stuff. I knew I was not up to moving on that fast from those “90 minutes” straight into an E&T (Education and Training) session. I said my goodbyes and headed into the rain.


I know Zackie’s entire history because I’m woke. I may have missed an international award or two but from his first activism as a teenager in 1976 to joining the ANC in 1980 to co-founding the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1994, the Treatment Action Campaign in 1998, the Social Justice Coalition in 2008, the Centre for Law & Social Justice in 2009 and aaaaalllllll the activism in between, Zackie from Salt River is the activist’s activist.

His activism secured treatment for HIV-positive South Africans and forced big pharma to allow the import of more affordable generic copies of patented drugs, to mention only two of dozens of winning outcomes. And let's not forget him calling for Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s head on a beetroot platter in 2006 (he actually just called on ANC members to send her packing). In 2004, Zackie withdrew his ANC membership in defiance of Mbeki's HIV/Aids denialism.

Zackie from Salt River does not tolerate injustice or its perpetrators. Knew that. Zackie is tireless and fearless. Knew that. Zackie believes in the constitution and fights for the rights it enshrines. Knew that.

It was what I didn’t know that stayed with me.

As the windscreen wipers flicked back and forth, I reflected on this calm and still Zackie. He speaks but you get the impression that there is as much introspection as expression. As if while his words and the world are spinning, his heart and mind are with someone or something. Or somewhere else.

“The first parliament was a people-centred parliament. Our people mattered.”

Former President Nelson Mandela with Zackie Achmat in 2002.
Former President Nelson Mandela with Zackie Achmat in 2002.

Zackie reflected on how accessible ministers and leadership were in that era (oy vey, was it the end of an era?). Invitations were sent to the outside from the inside to meet within the newly liberated hallowed walls to debate and find solutions for a country battered by injustice and inequality. The doors of parliament were open. Then.

And Zackie took the people to parliament. Then. And watched in real time as one person’s story brought real change, time and time again.

I pushed my foot flat down on the pedal on the M3. Enraged. Spitting mad with the tragedy of it all. How the mighty have fallen. How the not-mighty remain.

One sentence played in my mind on repeat.

Zackie Achmat deserves to be in parliament. Zackie Achmat deserves to be in parliament.

Zackie Achmat deserves to be in parliament. That’s it.

Whether he makes it to parliament or not, Zackie will always be Zackie from Salt River; chatting to the aunties and uncles. And the kids. And the café owner and the garage attendant. And the big pharma CEO and the judge and their aunties and uncles. Eyes peeled on the constitution.

What about an activist in parliament?

A minister who has a bring-your-aunty-to-work day. Or a leader who knows the constitution and not just the preamble. A human being in parliament.

The protagonist with a well-worn cloak of hard knocks and noble aspirations.

Be on the lookout for a “Zackie2024 lunch” invite near you, because many a mighty movement has started with a WhatsApp group of 21.


Think for yourself:

♦ VWB ♦

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