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Gail Johnson -Nkosi Johnson's foster mother
"I will be losing my son, how does one cope emotionally with that?"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 23:36 GMT
Child Aids icon close to death
Nkosi Johnson (in bed) accompanied by his family
Nkosi has slipped into semi consciousness
By Allan Little in Johannesburg

South Africa has the fastest-growing Aids problem in the world, with millions now infected.

One 12-year-old boy, Nkosi Johnson, has come to symbolise the epidemic for the entire country.

Actor Danny Glover hugs Nkosi Johnson - November 2000
Actor Danny Glover with Nkosi last year
Nkosi inherited Aids from his mother and wasn't expected to make it to his third birthday. Now the life he has clung to with such spirit is finally slipping away from him.

It was at last July's World Aids conference in Durban that Nkosi broke this country's heart.

He begged South Africa to stop demonising people with HIV and Aids - and to address the needs of its hundreds of thousands of Aids orphans.

"My mother and father died, I'm an orphan and I'm infected. But I'm really a lucky little boy, that I'm living with a foster family and I'm strong and healthy," he told the world.

Denial

South Africa was in denial about Aids.

Its government did not want to talk about the subject.


You can't get Aids by hugging, kissing, holding hands. We are normal human beings, we can walk we can talk

Nkosi's conference speech
Its president, Thabo Mbeki, to the consternation of campaigners all over the world, refused to accept that HIV caused Aids.

One emaciated brave child spoke with a clarity and a force that the entire political elite of this country had failed to reach, in a speech that moved thousands of international delegates.

"You can't get Aids by hugging, kissing, holding hands. We are normal human beings, we can walk we can talk," he told the conference to great applause.

Complacency

Nkosi's home in Johannesburg now is a dismal, exhausted place.

South African President Thabo Mbeki opening World Aids Conference
Mr Mbeki shocked campaigners by denying that HIV caused Aids
Nkosi has slipped into semi consciousness.

The virus has damaged his brain. He hasn't spoken a word for more than two weeks.

His foster mother, Gail Johnson, deals with an endless stream of high profile visitors - including Zinali Mbeki, the wife of the president.

Gail Johnson believes Nkosi has shaken this country from its disastrous complacency about Aids.

The truth is that Nkosi Johnson has shamed this country's leadership.

Enduring message

That is why his dying resonates with such force here.

"The government has really been challenged by the fact that a 12-year-old has stood up and said things that they haven't really liked to hear sometimes," says Dr James McIntyre, an Aids specialist at the Chris Hani Barawanath Hospital in Soweto.

"It's made them have to respond to it. It's a lot more difficult to dismiss the real words of a child who is dying of Aids than it is to dismiss a researcher."

Nkosi Johnson is dying. But he has come to symbolise a dignified and brave way of living with Aids.

His example will live on because his message - brave and strong - is one that South Africa - in its enduring ignorance about Aids and its causes - desperately needs to hear.

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | Africa
Aids threat to SA education
19 Apr 00 | Health
South Africa Aids crisis worsens
20 Sep 00 | Africa
Mbeki digs in on Aids
10 Jul 00 | Africa
Stark warning over Aids apathy
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