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Hero Child Who Led the Battle Against AIDS Dies

Nkosi Johnson became just one more victim of AIDS. But Nkosi's death was different. His courage had made the tragedy of AIDS in South Africa impossible for the world to ignore.

The stigma of AIDS in South Africa had shunted its almost 5 million victims--many of them children--into dark forgotten corners. But Nkosi Johnson stole the show and everybody's heart at an international conference last year, talking of the need for drugs and education. He gave the anonymous victims of AIDS here a face.

"My mother and father died and I am an orphan and infected," said Johnson in an interview. "I am a really lucky little boy."

Lucky because he was fostered by a white South African woman, and unlike others, had access to medication, which prolonged his life. What's more, his name became a draw for funds to open a home for HIV-infected mothers and children. That is Johnson's legacy.

"He gave AIDS a face not only to South Africa but to Africa," says Gale Johnson, Nkosi's foster mother. "And I am proud, very proud of him and it's his turn to rest now."

With a wisdom and maturity beyond his years, Nkosi became an international crusader. His death brought fitting tributes.

"It's a grave pity that this young man has departed," says former South African president Nelson Mandela. "He was very bold about it and he touched many hearts."

But Johnson was more than a symbol. In the end he was simply a little boy. "A stunning little boy," says foster mother Gale. "Stunning but bloody naughty sometimes."

Nkosi Johnson lost his personal battle against AIDS, but in the overall war against the disease he died an unlikely hero. One little boy put the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa on the world's agenda. Now the world and the government here face the challenge of proving that Nkosi Johnson's life and death were not in vain.

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