Nkosi's Losing Fight

J O H A N N E S B U R G, South Africa, Jan. 8, 2001 -- South Africa’s most prominent woman, the wife of President Thabo Mbeki, paid a farewell call to her country’s most famous little boy today, Nkosi Johnson.

He is the little boy who put a brave and smiling face on AIDS in Africa. He survived longer than any AIDS baby on the continent. But now 11-year-old Nkosi Johnson is close to death.

His adoptive mother, Gail Johnson, took Mrs. Mbeki to his bedside for a brief visit.

“His condition remains unchanged,” says Johnson. “I guess one could call him semi-comatose.”

Nkosi was hospitalized this week after convulsions left him semi-comatose and his prominence as a tiny but outspoken AIDS activist made his grave condition front-page news in Johannesburg and elsewhere in the country.

“It’s just that the HIV disease and the HIV virus is…is marching on,” said his physician Dr. Ashraf Coovadia as he conceded that the boy’s death is just a matter of time.

The seizures have continued but Johnson says her son is not surrendering easily. “Nkosi’s little heart keeps beating like a bongo drum,” she says, “and I don’t know who he’s sending a message to.”

The boy’s grave condition is reported daily all across South Africa. And at Nkosi’s Haven, an AIDS shelter his mother established in his name, his pals delivered an affectionate, if futile, message of support.

A Surprising Visit

Mrs. Mbeki’s visit was a surprise since her husband is seen as opposing the use of the AIDS drugs that have kept Nkosi alive so long — and Nkosi has been outspoken and critical of the president.

Still, she was greeted warmly and introduced to the latest addition to the household: an abandoned baby given the same name as her husband, “Thabo.”

The word means joy, which, despite her sadness now, is precisely how Johnson sees Nkosi.

“I would love it for him to talk to me just one more time because I don’t know if there is unfinished business for my little guy,” says Johnson, “and that’s why he’s lingering.”

Just before Christmas, his energy waning, his frail body wasting away, Nkosi spoke of his determination to fight the disease destroying him and thousands of other African children.

“No, I‘m not going to give up,” Nkosi said last month. “I’ve got a lot of work to do for the others.”