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Twelfth birthday a milestone for South African AIDS activist

Nkosi Johnson  

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- Nkosi Johnson, a boy who has come to represent South Africa's struggle against the AIDS epidemic, crossed a threshold on Sunday that for healthy boys is expected, but for Johnson, was a symbolic victory.

Johnson was joined by friends, family and celebrities in marking his 12th birthday on Sunday, a day many thought he would never see. Still, Johnson is dying -- confined to his bed, unable to walk, and passing in and out of consciousness. For this reason, Johnson's loved ones brought his party to his bedside.

"The present I wanted to give him today I can't, and that is his life," said Johnson's foster mother, Gail Johnson. "I would love him to walk today, but he can't." Johnson's condition also makes it difficult for him to speak.

Johnson's birth mother abandoned her child at the age of 3. Gail Johnson later took him into her Johannesburg home.

"His eyes are open," said his teacher, Sabrina Bateman. "He gave me a squeeze and I'm very happy."

Other get-well wishes came from South African President Thabo Mbeki, who sent a representative. Johnson has long expressed his wish to meet Mbeki in person.

Impressive speaker

Not long ago, Johnson was able to speak impressively against AIDS discrimination, prompting the Action for Orphans Web site to describe him as a "forceful, intelligent and informed speaker about the plight of children living with AIDS in his part of the world."

Gail Johnson
Gail Johnson, left, Nkosi's foster mother, and his maternal grandmother celebrate his 12th birthday  

During his 12 short years, Johnson has become South Africa's youngest and most well-known AIDS activist. His fight to be allowed to attend school with healthy children his own age inspired and rallied an entire nation. Johnson's message includes tolerance, acceptance and help for those with HIV/AIDS.

Johnson, just one of about 13 million African children who have lost parents to the incurable disease, took his case to be allowed to attend school to the nation's parliament, prompting lawmakers to enact new legislation forbidding discrimination against people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Please get well," one classmate told Johnson at the party. "We miss you. We miss your smile. And I miss you very much and I love you."

CNN Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault contributed to this report.

World's young AIDS fighter may lose his own battle
January 9, 2001
Mandela issues World AIDS Day plea
December 1, 2000
Africa's AIDS crisis finds leaders squabbling
July 11, 2000
Protesters target drug firms as AIDS conference opens in South Africa
July 9, 2000

European Union link on AIDS fight
AIDS Foundation of South Africa

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