There are some pictures which have burned their way in my mind and I was reminded of that recently when Sam Nzima died, the photographer who took that classic picture of the dying Hector Petersen taken at the start of the 1976 Soweto riots. Images like music and smells can trigger memories and bring back all the emotions and feelings that are associated to that memory.
This week another image jumped out at me and brought back a flood of memories and emotions.
This week the University of Stellenbosch honoured child activist Nkosi Johnson, where a new residence has been named after him. The Nkosi Johnson House is the latest of three new student residences at the university’s Medical and Health Sciences campus in Tygerberg and holds the title of “greenest residence in Africa”, owing to its energy- and water saving features.
Surprisingly, considering the important role that Nkosi played, he has never received any award in South Africa as a critical voice in the struggle for social justice in the fight against HIV and AIDS in South Africa.
My memories of Nkosi are mostly around the the 13th International AIDS Conference which was held in South Africa where Nkosi was the key note speaker.
The sight of this frail little boy with his tiny little voice gently asking people at the conference to recognise people like him and at the same time quietly letting the world and our government know that people with AIDS had rights too.
His last words at the conference became a clarion call which gladly today appears to be the norm. He said “Care for us and accept us — we are all human beings. We are normal. 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!”
I wanted to share this with my daughter and realised she was only born two years after Nkosi had died and as I shared the story I was aware of the fact at how absurd we were in our understanding of this disease. No wonder she calls it the olden days; sometimes it feels like the dark ages.
Nkosi became well known in 1997 when the school system decided that he could not attend a regular school and the surrounding press around that elevated the question of AIDS. At the time that he had risen to prominence the government denied any responsibility in fighting the disease. Our president had read the “fake news” and decided that there was no link between HIV and AIDS.
Our Minister of Health, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang under President Thabo Mbeki controversially laid the emphasis on treating the AISA epidemic easily accessible vegetables such as garlic and beetroot, rather than with antiretroviral medicines, the subject of huge international criticism. It has been alleged that these policies led to the deaths of over 300,000 South Africans.
I know, it sounds crazy now but that was the government policy and it was only the other day.
To all those young activists who have played such big roles in making South Africa what it is today, you are not forgotten.