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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Simon Nkoli?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Through his dedication and courage, black Gay anti-apartheid activist Simon Tseko Nkoli played a key role in the fight for GLBT liberation and human rights for people with HIV/AIDS in South Africa.

Nkoli was born in Soweto in November 1957. He spent part of his childhood living with his grandparents, tenant farmers on a white estate, before moving to Sebokeng township to join his mother and stepfather.

Nkoli became an anti-apartheid activist at a young age. After multiple arrests for civil disobedience, including participation in the Soweto student uprising in the summer of 1976, he joined the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), the African National Congress (ANC), and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Fellow COSAS members debated removing him from his position of regional secretary when his sexual orientation became known, but a large majority ultimately voted in his favor.

Long aware of his same-sex attractions, Nkoli began his first serious relationship at age 19, with a white bus driver. After Nkoli revealed this to his mother, she sent him to a series of local healers, a Christian priest, and finally a psychologist, who turned out to be Gay himself and advised the lovers to live together - even if Nkoli had to pose as his partner's servant to evade racial segregation laws.

In his early 20s, after coming out in an interview with a black newspaper, Nkoli joined the newly formed Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), which consisted mostly of middle-class white men. Resolutely apolitical, the group resisted Nkoli's requests to hold social events at nonsegregated venues, leading him to form the Saturday Group, the country's first black Gay organization, in 1984.

Around the same time, amid growing racial discord, Nkoli stepped up his anti-apartheid activism, helping organize a tenant rent strike in the town of Delmas. Charged with killing a man by throwing a rock during a protest, Nkoli was arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. Along with 21 other black activist leaders, he was tried in 1986 for the capital crimes of subversion, conspiracy, and treason.

While in prison awaiting trial, Nkoli revealed his homosexuality to his co-defendants - ANC and UDF members who would later hold high-level positions in the post-apartheid government - and they came to respect and support him as a Gay man. "This country will never protect the rights of its Gay and Lesbian citizens unless we stand up and fight - even when it makes us unpopular with our own comrades," he later wrote. Nkoli came out more publicly during the trial, when he used his attendance at a GASA meeting as an alibi to counter claims that he had been present at a clandestine political meeting. In 1988, the charges against him were dropped and he was released.

During his imprisonment, Nkoli became a cause celebre for Gay rights activists around the world, but he received minimal support from the accomodationist GASA. This stance led the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) to suspend GASA for its failure to condemn apartheid, and the latter group soon collapsed.

After his release, Nkoli co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand - the country's first genuinely integrated GLBT organization - and later the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (now the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project). "I am black and I am Gay," he proclaimed at the first South African Pride march in 1990. "I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggle. They will be all one struggle." Nkoli traveled widely speaking about the situation in his country, served as an ILGA board member representing Africa, and earned numerous honors for his work.

Nkoli's anti-apartheid activism and ties with movement leaders proved instrumental in winning the ANC's support for gay rights. In 1994, he met with Nelson Mandela, whose election as president marked the end of the apartheid era. As the newly integrated country crafted its constitution, Nkoli lobbied for sexual orientation to be included in its anti-discrimination provisions, and also argued for repeal of sodomy laws. In 1996, South Africa became the first country to include explicit constitutional protection for GLBT people. A decade later, in fulfillment of a court mandate based on the constitution, the South African parliament legalized same-sex marriage.

Yet even as the Gay movement gained strength and the apartheid regime crumbled, the AIDS epidemic reached crisis proportions in the 1990s, reintensifying racism and homophobia. Having been diagnosed with HIV himself (likely contracted in prison), Nkoli turned his focus to AIDS activism, co-founding groups including the Positive African Men's Project and the Township AIDS Project.

As the decade wore on, Nkoli experienced increasing bouts of ill health; he died of an AIDS-related infection on November 30, 1998, in the company of his long-time partner, Roderick Sharp. Though Nkoli himself was not able to benefit from effective new HIV drugs, his work for universal treatment access inspired fellow Gay and anti-apartheid activist Zackie Achmat to form the Treatment Action Campaign, which today is widely regarded as the strongest AIDS activist group in the world.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

Further reading:
Gevisser, Mark, and Edwin Cameron (editors). 1995. Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa (Routledge).
Vargo, Marc. 2002. "An Arrest for Homicide: Simon Nkoli and the Delmas Treason Trial." In Scandal: Infamous Gay Controversies of the Twentieth Century (Harrington Park Press).
 

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