In a time when 24.5 million of the 37.9 million people living with HIV (that’s 62%) globally have access to the antiretroviral medication they so direly need to live full and healthy lives, it’s difficult to look back at a time when HIV/AIDS denialism was at its height. Then-president Thabo Mbeki and former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s dangerous and unproven policies and rhetoric is blamed for up to 365,000 preventable deaths, and it would take more than a decade for HIV and AIDS to be prioritised at its current levels.
It was during this time that a tiny figure in a suit took to the stage at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban. Speaking in front of an audience of 10,000 delegates, his self-written speech is now iconic in its simplicity. Just 11 years old at the time, Nkosi didn’t hold back in his criticism of the South African government of the time’s detrimental AIDS policies, but it was his closing remarks that directly addressed the stigma associated with the pandemic. “We are normal,” he said. “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.”
Nkosi and his adoptive mother, Gail Johnson, weren’t unaccustomed to making the voices of people living with HIV and AIDS heard. In 1997, a school in Melville’s refusal to accept Nkosi as a student caused a furore that would guarantee that no child would again be denied education in South Africa due to their HIV status.
Nkosi Johnson, born Xolani Nkosi on 4 February 1989, would be 31 this year, had he not passed away from AIDS-related causes on 1 June 2001, aged 12. One wonders what this foot soldier in the fight against the pandemic would have gone on to do, had he had access to the more advanced treatments available today.
Nkosi’s legacy lives on in Nkosi’s Haven, an NGO founded in his and his birth mother’s honour by his adoptive mom, Gail. Today, Nkosi’s Haven houses 22 mothers and 121 children that have been affected by HIV/AIDS, with plans to expand into a self-sustaining community called Nkosi’s Haven 4Life Farm.
In honour of this important activist, Google honoured Nkosi Johnson with a Google doodle on what would have been his 31st birthday. May we never forget his legacy, as we continue the fight to eradicate this disease once and for all.