Mbeki criticised for missing AIDS icon's funeral

Johannesburg- South Africa (PANA) -- President Thabo Mbeki has been lambasted by AIDS activists and international media for failing to attend the funeral of Nkosi Johnson, South Africa's youngest AIDS activist.
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, whose son died of AIDS some years ago, attended Nkosi's funeral Saturday.
International media reports criticised AIDS dissidents and Mbeki, in particular, for choosing to attend the launch of a 1.
3 billion rand renewal project in Alexandra Township instead of paying their last respects to the little boy.
This was the latest of Mbeki's public snubs against Nkosi.
During the young victim's speech at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in July 2000, the president turned his back on the boy, walking out of the conference hall while he was still speaking.
A frail Nkosi had stood in front of thousands of delegates at the conference and asked Mbeki to give pregnant women anti- retroviral treatment to prevent maternal transmission of HIV.
Mbeki also failed to grant Nkosi's wish for a meeting with him, effectively denying Nkosi a chance to show him that AIDS is not only a syndrome caused by poverty and drugs, as Mbeki and AIDS dissidents claim.
In a message apparently directed to the government, Methodist Church Bishop Mvume Dandala said: "I don't care what position you take in this debate.
But I make a plea: open your heart.
Just show this country, show these children some compassion.
" The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) complained about the slow response from government in providing AIDS drugs and has threatened to take the matter to court.
However, the child activist's death may be a turning point, if past South African history is anything to go by.
In 1976 school children took to the streets in defiance of the apartheid government and changed the nature and pace of the struggle for freedom.
"Apartheid activist Hector Petersen and AIDS icon Nkosi Johnson both died in June, a quarter of a century apart.
"Now the similarities between the two boys - aged 13 and 12 respectively at the time of their deaths - are being highlighted in the latest campaign for free anti-retroviral treatment for people living with HIV," wrote the Star newspaper.
The red and black posters of the TAC, which surfaced for the first time at Nkosi's funeral on Saturday, had photographs of the two boys side by side.
Above the photographs were the words: "HIV/AIDS Treatment Plan Now.
" Like Hector Petersen, whose death will be remembered on Youth Day on Saturday, speakers at the funeral hailed little Nkosi as a hero, too.
Dr Bongani Khumalo, AIDS advisor in the Office of the Presidency, hailed him as a "young warrior.
" US human rights activist, the Rev.
Jesse Jackson, in a written tribute read at the ceremony, stated: "Nkosi was my hero.
" Deputy President Jacob Zuma, in another written message, described Nkosi as "a brave little soldier.
" Kaunda said Nkosi had "put a smile on the face of darkness.
AIDS is darkness.
" But, like Petersen, Nkosi's heroic stand has been virtually ignored by the South African government of the day.
Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, national AIDS directorate head Nono Simelela and other senior health officials, were also notably absent.
But the overwhelming message of Nkosi's funeral was one of the need for unity in the fight against AIDS - regardless of beliefs about whether or not HIV caused AIDS.
Gail Johnson, in a tribute to her adopted son, said: "Nkosi taught me unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.
I ask South Africans to do the same.
"We have a future of children either infected or orphaned who will be brought up empty if we don't care for them," she said.
"I would ask us to bury (our) differences.

10 june 2001 12:50:00

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