Here is everything you need to know about the influential youngster on what would have been his 31st birthday.
Johnson was born Xolani Nkosi in a small village near the coal mining town of Dannhauser in eastern South Africa in 1989, and was HIV-positive from birth.
He never knew his father, and when his own mother was no longer able to care for him due to the effects of the disease, Johnson was adopted by a Johannesburg Public Relations practitioner.
Johnson’s plight first came to the attention of the public in 1997, when a primary school in suburban Johannesburg refused to accept him due to his HIV-positive status.
South Africa’s Constitution forbids discrimination on the grounds of medical status, and the incident caused a scandal that forced the school to reverse its decision.
Johnson’s foster mother organised workshops that educated the South African community about AIDS, and her efforts led Parliament to pass legislation that required schools to uphold anti-discrimination policies.
AIDS activists hang a portrait of the late Nkosi Johnson during his funeral service at a Johannesburg church (Photo: YOAV LEMMER/AFP via Getty Images)
In the same year as his starting school, Nkosi’s birth mother died, and his own condition steadily worsened over the years.
He was able to lead a relatively active lifestyle both at school and at home with the help of medication and treatment, but died 1 June 2001 aged 12.
‘Care for us and accept us’
During his life, Johnson was an important factor in changing the public’s perception of the disease, particularly in South Africa.
He was the keynote speaker at the 13th International AIDS Conference, where he encouraged people with HIV/AIDS to be open about the disease and to seek equal treatment.
“Care for us and accept us,” he said in his impassioned speech. “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 — do not be afraid of us — we are all the same!”
The speech inspired the title of ABC’s journalist Jim Wooten’s Robert F. Kennedy Book Award-winning book ‘We Are All the Same’, which told the life story of Johnson.
An ‘icon of the struggle for life’
Nkosi Johnson accompanied by his adopted mother Gail Johnson addresses a media conference in 2000 (Photo: RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Audiences around the world heard Johnson’s speeches, which helped destigmatise the global perspective on those affected by the disease.
Johnson founded a refuge for HIV positive mothers and their children with his adoptive mother in Johannesburg, and in 2005, he was posthumously awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize.
Nelson Mandela referred to Nkosi as an “icon of the struggle for life.”
Main image copyright: Google
Written by: Alex Nelson