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Sunday, 14 January, 2001, 06:57 GMT
Words of hope from child Aids victim
Family members at Nkosi's bedside
Nkosi has become very ill since his Durban speech
By Allan Little in Johannesburg

Let me tell you the seven words that haunt me. They were spoken at the World Aids Conference in Durban last July, by a tiny, emaciated child of 11, who had lived with HIV since the day he was born.

Nkosi with his foster mother, Gail
Gail has cared for Nkosi since he was two
A child so thin and underdeveloped that he looked much younger.

Seven words from a child who knew that he was bound to die, and who knew, even as he spoke then, that he was defying the odds even by having survived this long.

Seven words from a child who had had to clamber over a mountain of prejudice and fear and denial even to be admitted as a pupil into a state primary school.

Passed from parents

A child against whom impossible odds had been stacked from the day he was born, from the very moment he was conceived by HIV positive parents.

My mother and father died, I am an orphan and I am infected - but I am living with a foster family and I am strong and healthy

Nkosi Johnson
Seven words, spoken at a World Aids Conference in Durban, that have shamed South Africa's political elite.

Seven words which are worth more than the myriad of reports written in good faith - and increasing desperation - by this country's frustrated and embittered Aids campaigners.

And those seven words were these: I am a very lucky little boy.

Public spotlight

Nkosi Johnson is dying. He should have succumbed by now to an opportunistic infection - like pneumonia - which would have swept him away.

Nkosi, in dying, has become a celebrity

But he has clung spiritedly to life for so long that the virus has finally attacked his brain and he is now no longer able to speak, or even to move much.

His foster mother Gail sits in a room adjoining his bedroom and takes calls from the local and international media - for Nkosi in dying has become a celebrity.

South African President Thabo Mbeki
President Mbeki has angered medical experts
Gail receives high profile visits by public figures flocking to the bedside of the dying child, among them Zaneli Mbeki, the wife of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

"I am a very lucky little boy". He said it at a news conference in Durban five months ago.

"My mother and father died, I am an orphan and I am infected. But I am living with a foster family and I am strong and healthy."

You can't get Aids by hugging, kissing, holding hands - we are normal human beings

Nkosi's conference speech
But everybody there - that cynical, stone-hearted collective known as the international press - could see from his physique and his exhausted, listless manner that he was neither strong nor healthy, and that it was only a matter of time.

When he was two years old his foster mother was told he would live no more than nine months.

Emotive speech

At the age of seven he was South Africa's oldest surviving Aids baby, and his short life as an Aids campaigner began.

He stood on the stage at Durban that day and begged South Africa to stop stigmatising people with HIV and Aids.

He begged other sufferers to speak publicly about their condition.

"You cannot catch Aids from hugging or kissing or holding hands," he said - and his words, strong and resonant from so frail and tiny a voice filled the hearts of thousands in the packed international venue.

"We are normal," he said, with devastating directness. "We are human beings.

"We can walk. We can talk."

Aids denier

He shared the stage that day with President Mbeki, who has confounded Aids specialists all over the world by refusing even to accept that HIV causes Aids.

Mother and child: both Aids victims
Aids is a big killer in Africa, and increasing
These were his grounds for withholding cheap, affordable drugs that could have cut mother to child transmission by 50%, and which only now - reluctantly - is South Africa placing on its register of legal medicines.

Mr Mbeki is one of Africa's great Aids deniers. At a closed session of his party last year he blamed the Aids problem on a CIA conspiracy.

Never yet has he come out and unambiguously blamed promiscuity and the practice of unprotected sex.

When I returned to my office from visiting Nkosi's sad, exhausted foster family the other day someone had sent me an item of news from Zambia.

Campaign withdrawn

There, the Protestant and Catholic churches have joined forces to persuade the state broadcaster to withdraw an Aids information campaign on the grounds that it condones sex before marriage.

The thrust of the campaign was to encourage the use of condoms. It is into this disastrous complacency that his sweet-natured child has shouted "Wake Up!"

"I am a very lucky little boy." Africa's tragedy is that he is right.

By African standards he is lucky.

Symbol of his country's agony

Millions of Aids orphans and millions not yet born will die without the love and the care that have sustained Nkosi Johnson, and under whose guidance he has become so potent a symbol of this country's agony, and this continent's shame.

Nkosi has found a brave and dignified way of living with Aids, and in the end of facing death. Africa desperately needs to hear his voice.

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | Africa
Child Aids icon close to death
09 Jan 01 | Africa
Anger at Zambia anti-Aids ads
10 Jan 01 | Africa
Aids threat to SA education
20 Dec 00 | Africa
Kenyan Aids vaccine tests delayed
09 Dec 00 | Africa
Africa Media Watch
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