AIDS Activists, Politicians React to Nkosi Johnson’s Death
AIDS activists and politicians from around the world this weekend reacted to the death of Nkosi Johnson, the 12-year-old AIDS orphan whom the New York Times called the "darling of an infected [South Africa] and a living indictment of the government's policies in the face of the epidemic." Nkosi, who received international attention when he criticized the government's slow response to South Africa's AIDS epidemic at last July's 13th International AIDS conference in Durban, died Friday morning (McNeil, New York Times, 6/2). Outlined below are reactions to Nkosi's death.
- As a "tribute to Nkosi's life and work," the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Foundation and Association on Wednesday released a film, "Nkosi: A Voice for Africa's AIDS Orphans," depicting Nkosi's activism on behalf of AIDS orphans and children with AIDS. The video, produced by Globalvision of New York, features excerpts from several of Nkosi's speaking engagements in the United States and South Africa, including the Durban conference, where Nkosi's comments "stung" South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been openly skeptical of the causal link between HIV and AIDS. The video also contains excerpts from "Nkosi's Mission," a documentary produced for South African television about the legal fight to enroll Nkosi in a public school, and from "Living With AIDS," a 1990 film profiling Nkosi and his foster mother. FXB President Albina du Boisrouvray called Nkosi "a warrior, an AIDS activist, a children's right crusader," adding that he "gave the world a human face emblematic of the scourge of children affected by AIDS" and that "his death is a call to all of us to continue his work on behalf of children who suffer from, and because of, AIDS" (FXB release, 6/1). FXB's Action for Orphans is also circulating a petition calling for more action on AIDS orphans to be presented to the U.N. General Assembly in September. To view the petition, click here (FXB Web site, 6/4).
- On Friday, ABC's "Nightline" ran a piece on Nkosi, which Danny Schechter, who produced the FXB video, called an "impressive and moving portrait." Schechter noted that the "Nightline" piece made no mention of the word "orphan," stating, "Nkosi was not just a 'poster boy' for AIDS ... but a spokesperson for AIDS orphans, the growing crisis within the AIDS crisis ... By narrowing its focus, [the piece] elicited sympathy about one child's fight for life but did not really connect his experience to the millions of other African kids who have not been lucky enough to be taken in by a white middle-class family" (Schechter, Mediachannel.org, 6/2).
- Former South African President Nelson Mandela called Nkosi an "icon of the struggle for life," adding that "[c]hildren such as Nkosi Johnson should be enjoying a life filled with laughter and happiness. On a frightening scale, HIV/AIDS is replacing that joy, laughter and happiness with paralyzing pain and trauma" (AP/Washington Post, 6/2).
- Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela's ex-wife and head of the ruling African National Congress' Women's League, called Nkosi a "lesson to us as a government to do our best to deal with AIDS" (New York Times, 6/2).
- "We have lost a voice," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in response to Nkosi's death (Braid, London Independent, 6/2).
- Treatment Action Campaign leader Zackie Achmat called Nkosi a "martyr" (New York Times, 6/2). But Time.com's Tony Karon said in a reaction piece that Nkosi is not a martyr because martyrs "are those who choose death in pursuit or in defense of their beliefs ... Nkosi did not choose death. Death chose him" (Karon, Time.com, 6/3).
- A UNAIDS statement said, "In his short life, [Nkosi] strove hard for the removal of stigma and discrimination that so many people suffer as a result of this disease. His call at the [Durban conference] for HIV-positive people to be treated equally will be remembered in history as a turning point in the fight against AIDS. Nkosi has shown that individuals can make a difference. His leadership and courage will be missed" (UNAIDS release, 6/1).