About 35 000 babies could have been born without HIV had the president listened to the boy.
It was winter, but the humidity was high. Droplets of perspiration beaded on the faces of the suited delegates seated at the opening ceremony of the 13th International Aids Conference in Durban on July 9 2000.
It was the first time the conference had been held on African soil.
One of the delegates in the front row was wearing a brand-new black suit. He was much younger than the others, mostly men, and he was sitting next to his foster mother.
Nkosi Johnson, 11, had something important to ask the president. Just a few chairs separated them. But the chasm between the little boy, and others like him, and the president, was immense.
Nkosi wanted Thabo Mbeki’s government to give HIV-infected mothers medication to prevent them from passing the virus to their babies.
His wish was based on personal experience and knowledge. Nkosi’s biological mother had died of HIV. She had passed it on to him, and it was multiplying in his fragile body.
Priced out of reach
At the time, a month’s supply of the antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) that would allow Nkosi to survive cost R2 400 – more than half of his foster mother Gail Johnson’s salary.
Nkosi was trembling as Mbeki opened the conference with the message that poverty, and not HIV, killed South Africans. The president was also on record as saying he didn’t know anyone with Aids.
“I want President Mbeki to meet me. We’re not poor, and I’ve got Aids,” Nkosi whispered to Johnson.
A thin and weak Nkosi took the stage. “I hate having Aids because I get sad when I think of the other children that are sick with Aids,” he said, before pleading: “I wish the government can give AZT to pregnant HIV mothers.”
Nkosi looked at Mbeki. But, as he was about to deliver the next paragraph of his speech, the unthinkable happened: Mbeki and his entire entourage stood up and left.
To Mbeki, Nkosi Johnson was like the rest of those who disagreed with his views that HIV did not cause Aids and that ARVs were poisonous: wilfully bowing to “orthodox” scientists and dancing to the tune of pharmaceutical companies.
But Nkosi was living proof of the scientific facts Mbeki was denying – that HIV can kill and that, although ARV treatment can’t cure HIV infection, it will prevent the virus from multiplying in the person’s body and allow them to live a long, healthy life.
This July, the International Aids Conference returns to Durban. South Africa will have an entirely different story to tell, because HIV activists fought to the highest court in the land to force the provision of the medication to those who need it.
South Africa will be able to boast about having the largest ARV programme in the world, a mother-to-child-transmission rate of less than 2% and a life expectancy rate that has risen by more than 20 years over the past decade – as a direct result of ARV treatment.
Scientists ostracised by Mbeki have produced new research. Journalists whom Mbeki branded “traitors” because they criticised his views have become editors. Mbeki was ousted as president in 2008, but his HIV views haven’t changed in over a decade.
Too little too late
Early on June 1 2001, Nkosi Johnson died. Someone had sponsored his ARVs, but the medication came too late; his immune system was too weak to recover.
Nkosi never met Mbeki. When he asked Johnson why the president had left the conference room while he was speaking, she lied, saying Mbeki “had to catch a plane”.
If Mbeki had embraced well-proven science, in all likelihood Nkosi would have been alive today.
He, and 330 000 other HIV-infected people, according to a Harvard University study, would have had access to the ARVs the government now provides to more than three million people at just over R100 a month a person. Thirty-five-thousand babies could have been born without the virus.
The South African National Aids Council is correct: we shouldn’t engage in the HIV denialist debate Mbeki attempted to revive this week with a letter released on his website. It will take us back to a “fractious past and can only serve as a distraction”, the council said in a statement.
Instead, we should ignore Mbeki, focus on South Africa’s HIV achievements, and allow the former president to go and catch his plane.
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.