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12 Jan 2001 00:00
The touch of a king was once believed to cure illness. It appears that many of our politicians believe the touch of a dying child might work similar miracles for them, to judge by their rush to be linked to Nkosi Johnson as he dies slowly of HIV/Aids.
Nkosi is one of the most public faces of HIV/Aids in South Africa, along with Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, Aids activist Zackie Achmat and the late Gugu Dlamini.
For politicians have learnt from the Diana syndrome, where Tony Blair’s popularity rose as he deftly spun the circumstances around the death of the late ex-Princess of Wales. One of Nkosi’s first visitors this week was Zanele Mbeki, wife of the president, in what the uncharitable may see as an attempt to spin positive publicity for the government. They may even be right. But one politician had real cause to call on Nkosi. He is Thabo Mbeki.
Before collapsing last weekend, Nkosi reportedly said that he wished he could meet and talk with the president, and ask him why he had left the opening ceremony of the Aids 2000 conference while Nkosi was speaking. Mbeki was on his way to Gabon—but his inability to delay his departure for 10 minutes to hear Nkosi looked like a snub to a child hailed as a hero.
It was yet another of Mbeki’s misjudgments this time as much human as political, and directed at a child. Perhaps and what else were people to think?—Mbeki left because he could not stomach the contents of Nkosi’s speech, which called for the government to provide treatment to people living with HIV/Aids. In particular, Nkosi wanted state help to prevent the vertical transmission of the virus from mother to child.
That is how Nkosi became infected his biological mother died several years ago from the disease. That day at the Aids conference in Durban, the frail child, looking older than his years and slightly overwhelmed by his suit, had the attention, in the flesh, of an audience of thousands and of many more on television.
According to his foster mother, the president’s office had already ensured that Nkosi would not speak before Mbeki, as had been initially planned. Nkosi spoke with experience of one who has not only had to fight HIV for all 11 years of his life but also as one who has seen the effects of the disease on others.
“I hate having Aids because I get very sick and I get very sad when I think of all the other children and babies that are sick with Aids. I just wish the government can start giving AZT to pregnant HIV mothers to help stop the virus being passed on to their babies. Babies are dying very quickly and I know one little abandoned baby came to stay with us and his name was Micky. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t eat and he was so sick, and my mummy, Gail, had to phone welfare to have him admitted to a hospital and he died. But he was such a cute little baby and I think the government must start doing it because I don’t want babies to die.”
Perhaps this was what Mbeki could not bring himself to hear: his government gently lambasted by a child for its equivocation and delay in responding to a pandemic that affects mainly the poor and black population, a disproportionate number of them women.
“When I was two years old I was living in a care centre for HIV/Aids infected people. My mommy was obviously also infected and she could not afford to keep me because she was very scared that the community she lived in would find out that we were both infected and chase us away. I know she loved me very much and would visit me when she could. And then the care centre had to close down because they didn’t have any funds.”
Irrespective of the reason the president might now give for not hearing Nkosi in Durban, the question we would like answered is why he will not visit Nkosi now and hear the silence of what seem to be this young man’s final hours. Quite possibly, the child would not know of Mbeki’s presence; but, equally possibly, the little boy would experience the affirmation he clearly craves from our first citizen. This is, however, evidently a gesture Mbeki finds it difficult to make.
For how could he make it with any sincerity without renouncing the nonsense he has been content to talk about HIV and Aids? His review of the year 2000 was equally inadequate. He could not bring himself, in his New Year address to the country, to acknowledge the massive crisis HIV/Aids is visiting upon us all.
As for those politicians who have wrung their hands over Nkosi’s tortuous decline, they will impress us more if they demonstrate an awareness of the thousands of other Nkosis in similar straits around the country. An estimated 200 infants a day are being born HIV-positive. Yet we still do not have a nationwide intervention programme to cut mother- to-child transmission, despite research indicating that it can be done relatively easily and cheaply.
The final report of the multimillion-rand presidential Aids advisory panel is still not out. Insiders say that the report is delayed by the difficulty in reconciling two opposing sets of views of factions of mainstream scientists and the dissidents. While we wait for this and our president to assume his full responsibilites, Aids dissidents spread additional confusion; as Nkosi’s health declines, so too does our view of the president; and more Nkosis are born and die.
For how long will we tolerate this leaderless state of affairs?
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