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Nkosi: The public face of AIDS

Nkosi Johnson
Nkosi fought the stigma of AIDS  

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- Youthful campaigner Nkosi Johnson was praised by South African statesman Nelson Mandela as an icon of the country's struggle against AIDS.

Nkosi, who died on Friday, took his message of safe-sex and advocacy of anti-AIDS drugs across a country still coming to terms with the disease and its devastating social consequences.

About 10 percent of South Africa's population are believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and Nkosi fought some of the deep stigmas, particularly fears that the disease could be caught by hugging HIV-positive babies and children.

Amid official disarray -- with Mandela's successor, President Thabo Mbeki, questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and the safety of AIDS drugs -- Nkosi became the public face of efforts to combat its spread.

He also used his fame to raise money for Nkosi's Haven, a shelter for HIV-positive mothers and their children.

In the final months of Nkosi's life, Mandela described the boy as an example for the world to follow, saying he inspired millions of people around the world.

"Let his life and example spur us on to be strong, resilient and vigorous in our fight against this dreaded infection ... He has earned the right to be accorded all honour, dignity and respect."


Nkosi was born on February 4, 1989, with HIV and became a potent symbol after being labelled the longest living AIDS child. About 200 HIV-positive children are born in South Africa each day, but most die before they reach school age.

Fostered by Gail Johnson since he was two years old, Nkosi's natural mother died of the disease in 1997.

The same year, together with Johnson, Nkosi successfully fought to force a public primary school to admit him despite his infection.

The case led to a policy forbidding schools from discriminating against HIV-positive children, and guidelines for how schools should treat infected pupils.

He shot to the wider world stage when he made an emotional appeal at the opening of the world's biggest AIDS conference in Durban last year.

Sharing the same platform as Mbeki, Nkosi appealed for compassion for people with AIDS, safe-sex and drugs such as AZT which can prevent the transmission of the virus from pregnant mothers to their children.

Mbeki disappointed some delegates in Durban by focusing on the role that poverty played in the spread of the disease rather than outlining government commitment to combat HIV-AIDS.

Some South Africans have questioned whether Nkosi's spot in the limelight robbed him of his childhood.

But High Court Justice Edwin Cameron, who is also infected with the virus said Nkosi enjoyed his public role and did only what he wanted to do.

He was "a person with maturity far beyond his years, with the wisdom and courage of many adults accumulated together," Cameron told the Associated Press.

• AIDS Foundation of South Africa
• World Health Organisation: HIV/AIDS

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