“In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man, and I am oppressed because I am gay. So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions.”
Simon Tseko Nkoli, the charismatic anti-apartheid and gay rights activist, sometimes called the “Gay Mandela”, died 20 years ago on 30th December, 1998. Through his dedication and courage Simon Nkoli played a key role in the fight for Gay Liberation and human rights for people with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. In remembering Simon, here are some of the facts of his life:
- Nkoli was born in Soweto on 26 November 1957 to a seSotho-speaking family. He grew up on a farm in the Free State and his family later moved to Sebokeng.
- As a teenager, Nkoli recognized his feelings for other men but identifying as a gay man was confusing because the seSotho word for homosexual is sitabane, which implies hermaphrodite.
- He came out to his mother at 18 whose response was to send him to a series of doctors and sangomas. She finally sent him to a psychologist who happened to be gay and showed him it was OK to be gay
- At 19 years he met his white boyfriend Andre. To the consternation of both their mothers they moved in together. But living together was difficult because of Apartheid and Simon had to pose as Andre’s domestic worker
- He got arrested four times in 1976 during the Soweto Uprising
- In 1979 he joined the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and became secretary for the Transvaal region. He was known to be gay which caused much discussion amongst his fellow students but they voted to retain him in the post
- 1983, he publicly came out in an interview in the City Press, a black newspaper. He also joined the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), which as a mainly all-white organisation, maintained an apolitical distance from the apartheid struggle.
- Frustrated with GASA’s conservatism, he started The Saturday Group, South Africa’s first gay black organization in May 1984
- By 1984 he was a member of both the United Democratic Front and the banned ANC. Nkoli spoke at rallies in support of rent-boycotts in the Vaal townships when he and 21 others were arrested and charged “subversion, conspiracy, and treason,” crimes subject to the death penalty. As a Delmas Trialist he became an international cause celebre
- In 1987 Canadian filmmaker John Greyson made a short film about Nkoli titled A Moffie Called Simon
- Nkoli was acquitted in 1988 and he and the rest of the “Vaal 22” were freed.
- He helped found the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), the first largely black based gay organisation in South Africa in 1988.
- Beginning in 1990, GLOW organized the country’s first three pride marches and became the model for several other gay groups in the black townships.
- After becoming one of the first publicly HIV-positive African gay men to come out in 1990, he became a founding member of the Positive African Men’s Project based in central Johannesburg and the Gay Men’s Health Forum, working tirelessly to bring AIDS education and counselling to disadvantaged populations. He was also a founding member of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, as well as a board member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
- He was one of the first gay activists to meet with President Nelson Mandela in 1994. His visibility in the anti-apartheid movement helped in winning the ANC’s support for gay rights, support that translated into tangible deeds once the ANC gained power. In 1996 South Africa became the first nation to include “sexual orientation” in the Constitution’s anti-discrimination clause. From this victory for equality came other gains, such as the repeal of sodomy laws and the recognition of gay relationships.
- In 1996 Nkoli was given the Stonewall Award in the Royal Albert Hall in London.
- He had been infected with HIV for around 12 years, and had been seriously ill, on and off, for the last four. He died of AIDS on 30 November 1998 in Johannesburg.
- The September 1999 the Jo’burg Pride March was dedicated to him and included a stop at the newly named “Simon Nkoli Corner” at the intersection of Pretoria and Twist Streets in Hillbrow. There is also a Simon Nkoli Street in Amsterdam and a Simon Nkoli Day in San Francisco.
- He opened the first Gay Games in New York and was made a freeman of that city by mayor David Dinkins
- Nkoli was the subject of Beverley Ditsie’s 2002 film Simon & I and Robert Colman’s 2003 play, Your Loving Simon.
But these facts do not tell the whole story of a man whose charm, wit and wisdom inspired a movement. As the founder of South Africa’s black gay movement, Simon Nkoli embodied its link with the anti-apartheid struggle. His prominent participation in the campaign for black freedom and his relationship with that movement’s leaders was instrumental in gaining recognition for gay rights in this country. As an AIDS educator and organizer of South Africa’s pride celebrations, he worked to unite black and white gay communities in a common cause.
In his obituary in the Mail and Guardian, South Africa’s First True Renaissance Man, Mark Gevisser wrote “Simon’s brilliance, as an anti-apartheid student leader, as the founder of the black gay movement in South Africa and as an AIDS activist in his later years, was his understanding of the tenet ‘the personal is the political.’ While in jail in the ’80s for anti-apartheid activities, he came out to his co-accused during a heated debate about homosexual behaviour in jail. So shocked were these anti-apartheid leaders that at first they demanded he be tried separately. But his unique combination of charm and perseverance won out. Terror Lekota, who was jailed with Simon for years, remembers him as one of the most enthusiastic, caring and intellectually curious of his co-accused. And so, when it came to writing the new South African constitution, Lekota asked, ‘How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against?’
Simon joined the white, conservative Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) and proceeded to turn it upside down. Just as he would not accept the homophobia of his black comrades, he could not abide the racism of his white ones. Once his ideas and GASA proved to be incompatible, he founded Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand, which organized South Africa’s first Gay and Lesbian Pride March in 1990….The best place to see Simon’s legacy is in the vibrant black gay subculture in South Africa’s townships. These young men and women are the Nkoli Generation; they saw articles about him in the press, they flocked to him. He made something of a political home for them, giving them an ideology that fused the freedom struggle with a sense of how they might find redemption from their families’ rejection through gay community and activism.”
In a December 12 1998 article about Nkoli’s funeral, titled Queer State Funeral in Sebokeng -Fag Apartheid rules as the real gay South Africa says goodbye to our Queer Mandela, the ever irreverent and acerbic Steven Cohen tells of a straight film-maker who described Simon Nkoli as “the gay Mandela”. He said he supported that parallel for the following reasons: “Simon Nkoli unified the black and white gay communities, ending faggot apartheid, by causing the dissolution of GASA and creating GLOW leading to the NCGLE (National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality). Simon Nkoli formed the first black gay movement in South Africa – the first organisation to include black lesbians. And Simon’s links with the ANC after his four years of imprisonment and subsequent acquittal were hugely instrumental in the entrenchment of our gay rights in the constitution. So, in no small way, Simon liberated, unified and legitimised the gay movement in South Africa. It is in part thanks to him that South Africa is not as fucked up as Zimbabwe. And at a time when we could all see no further than our mental and physical borders, Simon made links with the international gay world outside South Africa from his prison cell.”
Nkoli’s speech at South Africa’s first Gay Pride March in 1990 was a significant moment in the Gay Movement of this country. “This is what I say to my comrades in the struggle when they ask why I waste time fighting for moffies. This is what I say to gay men and lesbians who ask me why I spend so much time struggling against apartheid when I should be fighting for gay rights. I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. They will be all one struggle. In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am gay,” he continued. “So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions. All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice. With this march, gays and lesbians are entering the struggle for a democratic South Africa where everybody has equal rights and everyone is protected by the law: black and white; men and women, gay and straight.” Tragically Nkoli himself was not to see his dream realised, dying of AIDS-related illnesses before it became a reality. And he never got to see the new South Africa government finally taking the AIDS epidemic seriously. Mark Gevisser wrote: “But if there is tragedy in this, there is also Simon’s impeccable feel for publicity: If he had to die, he may as well put his passing away to good use”, having died on the eve of World AIDS Day in 1998.