June 2: In the war against AIDS, they don’t come any tougher than Xolani Nkosi, better known as Nkosi Johnson since his adoption by a white family. In his short life, he had become one of South Africa’s youngest and boldest campaigners fighting for the rights of AIDS affected people to be accepted by society.
At 5:40 am on June 1, he finally lost the battle. Now, there’s nothing more the doctors can do for him. The virus had damaged his brain, making him unable to speak or eat.
Nkosi remained in a critical condition after suffering severe seizures over the last few days. His fragile life slowly slipped away, and he died peacefully in his sleep. Former South African President Nelson Mandela has described him as “an icon of the struggle for life.”
At 12, he had gained the tragic distinction of being South Africa’s longest surviving HIV-positive child. About 200 HIV-positive children are born in South Africa every day, but most of them die before they reach school age. The fact that Nkosi died on a day observed as International Children’s Day, has drawn attention to the plight of the HIV-infected children around the world.
Nkosi was born in 1989, infected with the virus that is believed to cause AIDS. It was transmitted to him by his biological mother at the time of his birth. He was adopted by his foster mother Gail Johnson when he was two years old because his mother was unable to take care of him. She died in 1997.
Soon after, the foster mother-son team began one of their toughest battles in life. They fought for the right of Nkosi to be admitted to a predominantly white school in Johannesburg. The fact that he had AIDS should not matter, they said.
They won the battle and Nkosi became a popular pupil at the school, completing his class IV exams in the year 2000. In the same year, the small boy emerged as an unlikely hero at the close of the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. He made a strong and emotional appeal to the people of the world not to shun those with AIDS. He also appealed to the South African government to make anti-AIDS drugs available.
In his short life, Nkosi became a powerful spokesman for children affected by AIDS. “He hated seeing sick babies and sick children,” said his foster mother. He had watched his mother and many of his friends die of AIDS and perhaps that gave him the energy to fight on.
Johnson, her eyes brimming with tears, said, “His race was run and I think we knew that a long time ago. I am exceptionally proud of Nkosi.”
It has been estimated by the United Nations that around 830,000 children worldwide are infected with HIV. And that is why Nkosi’s courageous battle gainst AIDS becomes so important to people around the world.