With more than 1.5 million South Africans afflicted with the HIV/AIDS virus, what made this young man stand out and make people take notice? Nkosi Johnson was born on February 4 1989 infected with HIV. His mother was sick with AIDS and could not take care of him. He never knew or met his father. A woman called Gail Johnson legally adopted him after meeting the pair in a care center where she worked as a volunteer. She was a Public Relations specialist from Johannesburg.
When Nkosi Johnson was 8 years old, Gail tried to enroll him in Primary School in a small suburb in Johannesburg. The school outright refused to accept on the grounds that he was infected with HIV. Much like a successful real estate agent advertising beautiful houses for sale in Cape Town, Gail knew, as a PR practitioner, how to get attention and brought the issue to the highest political officers in Johannesburg. She demanded that her son be accepted since the constitution specifically states that a person cannot be discriminated against because of his medical condition.
The school, under the scrutiny and spotlight of the public, yielded and allowed Nkosi to attend school with them. Unfortunately, this triumph was marred by the death of his biological mother in the same year. The school also began to change its stance and allow the other children to be taught not to discriminate against other children with medical conditions through the use of workshops. It eventually led to an official policy for all schools to accept students with medical conditions.
Gail was able to afford the treatment for Nkoshi so even his condition was slowly deteriorating; the medicine somehow delayed the worsening of Nkosi’s health. It also made it possible for him to lead a relatively normal life as a young child.
In 2000, Nkosi was a guest speaker at the 13th International AIDS Conference which was held in Durban. The theme of the conference was “Breaking The Silence” and Nkosi was chosen to deliver the keynote address before 10,000 people. His words still ring true to this day when he said, “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.”
Although Nkosi never lived past his 11th birthday, he is known for his enduring spirit and positive outlook. He and his mother, Gail, founded a home for mothers and children with HIV. It is called Nkosi’s Haven and it is located in Johannesburg. He never lived to receive the International Children’s Peace Price which was given posthumously in 2005. Gail has put the price money into the refuge house.
He is also known for being the one who lived the longest among all South African babies born with HIV. Songs were made using his words or using his life as an inspiration. Books were written about his endearing charm.
Most importantly, Nkosi put a face to the plight of AIDS victims and made them real, human, and lovable.