“Hi, my name is Nkosi Johnson,” he began. “I am 11 years old and I have full-blown Aids. I was born HIV-positive.”
That was enough to break any heart and get anyone thinking. After castigating the government for not doing enough for people like him, he concluded, “Care for us and accept us – we are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else. Don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same.” When Nkosi died at the age of 12 in 2001, he was given a deserved hero’s farewell by thousands of mourners. The ripples of his work are still being felt almost 15 years later.
Born Xolani Nkosi on the 4th of February in 1989 in a town on the East Rand, no one could have expected the young HIV-positive boy to live let alone live and be a world-wide icon. Nonthlanthla Daphne Nkosi, his mother was HIV-positive and the boy was born infected. Daphne could not provide the care that the child needed and while at an AIDS care centre in Johannesburg, they met Gail Johnson, a volunteer worker. Gail would become Nkosi’s foster mother and when the care centre closed down, she took him home. Daphne would then die of an Aids related illness in 1997.
She had maintained a functional relationship with her son even after Gail took him in and naturally, the boy was aggrieved. In his 2000 speech, he said of her, “I know she loved me very much and would visit me when she could.”
“Mommy Gail went to the school, Melpark Primary, and she had to fill in a form for my admission and it said does your child suffer from anything, so she said yes: Aids,” Nkosi said, adding, “My mommy Gail and I have always been open about me having Aids. Then she phoned the school, who said we will call you and then they had a meeting about me. Of the parents and the teachers at the meeting, 50% said yes and 50% said no.”
This was in 1997 when Gail Johnson attempted to enroll Nkosi at a school in Melville, Johannesburg but the teachers and parents opposed his enrollment. A very militant Gail took the issue to the public and ultimately won her case also opening doors for other children in similar conditions.
“I am very proud to say that there is now a policy for all HIV-infected children to be allowed to go into schools and not be discriminated against,” the young activist would later say. The fight for education had thrown him in the epicenter of activism and there was no going back now.
In July 2000, the world was to meet the small figured young boy with ideas bigger than him on the stage of the 13th International Aids Conference. It is here where he told the world, “Don’t be afraid of us – we are all the same.” In October of the same year, he carried his gospel to another conference in Atlanta Georgia in the United States of America. The world now knew of the little fighter who was alive to the realities of a world he was to leave shortly.
Nkosi died the following year at 5.40 am on Friday the 1st of June.