Nkoli, Simon

views updated

Simon Nkoli


Gay rights activist, anti-apartheid activist

Simon Nkoli's personal courage and fierce pride in his identity as a black South African and a gay man made him a leader in both the anti-apartheid movement and the South African gay liberation movement. More, his refusal to keep his gay identity hidden and his tireless work within the anti-apartheid movement helped change long-held anti-gay attitudes among those who worked for social justice in South Africa. Nkoli not only helped found the first black-led gay rights groups in his homeland, but he also paved the way for South Africa to become the first country in the world to include the protection of gay and lesbian rights in its national constitution.

Tseko Simon Nkoli was born on November 26, 1957, in Phiri township in, Soweto, South Africa. Soweto, a contraction of the words "South Western Townships," is the name given to a group of small black communities outside the South African city of Johannesburg. His parents and their four children lived in poverty and fear under the extreme segregation of the South African apartheid system. One of Nkoli's earliest memories was of hiding his parents from the police because the white government's restrictive pass law policy made it illegal for the family to live together.

His parents separated when Simon was a young child, and he was sent to live with his grandparents, who worked as tenant farmers in the Free Orange State, a province south of Johannesburg. The children worked long hours on the farm and faced whippings from the white landlord if their work was not finished on time. Even as a child Nkoli quickly understood that education was his best hope of a better life. Until he was 13, he walked 14 kilometers, or almost nine miles, to attend school in addition to his farm work.

When he turned 13, both the white landowner and his grandparents agreed that Nkoli should quit school in order to work full time on the farm. Unwilling to give up his dream of improving his life, he ran away to Johannesburg where he found his mother, Elizabeth, and his stepfather, Elias, and continued his education. His stepfather worked in a hotel as a chef, and his mother worked as a domestic servant and later as a clerk in a shop.

Nkoli began to realize that he was gay when he was a teenager. When he was 19 he became involved in his first romantic relationship with a man, a white bus driver he had met through a pen pal magazine. On his 20th birthday, he told his family about his sexual orientation. His family remained steadfast in their love of Nkoli, yet knew little about homosexuality, and were angry and fearful about his revelation. Nkoli's male friend's parents were also upset by the relationship. They had accepted their son's gayness, but refused to allow his relationship with a black man. The two young men were so devastated by their families' reactions that they made a plan to commit suicide together. When Nkoli's mother discovered the plan, she gave up her opposition to the relationship and convinced the two not to kill themselves.

In hopes of changing his sexuality, Nkoli's mother and stepfather had taken him to priests, traditional folk healers, and a psychiatrist. By coincidence, the psychiatrist was a gay man who offered Nkoli support in his choice. He even suggested a way that Nkoli and his partner could live together, with Nkoli posing as a servant. When they both entered college in Johannesburg, they did live together in this way.

Struggled Against Culture and Law in South Africa

From hiding his parents from the police in their own house to pretending to be a servant in order to live with his partner, and in hundreds of other large and small ways, the unjust system of racial segregation called apartheid had affected Nkoli all of his life. To understand Nkoli's accomplishments, it is necessary to understand a little of the history of the nation where he grew up.

Southern Africa had been colonized by both Dutch and British settlers, beginning in 1652 when the Dutch East India Trading Company established an outpost there. First attracted by trade, then by vast pasturelands which could support herds of sheep and cattle, Dutch settlers began to leave the coastal areas to settle inland. By the late 1700s, the British had also established a large colonial presence in the south of Africa. Both groups had enslaved local black inhabitants as well as importing slaves from other African countries and the West Indies. The role of slavery increased as diamonds, gold, and other valuable minerals were discovered and exploited during the 1800s.

The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 as a result of a series of wars between the British and Dutch colonists. That same year, a system of government-sanctioned racial segregation was introduced. Though slavery had been abolished, a series of "separation" laws ensured that black South Africans, who were in the vast majority, would remain on the bottom of society. One of these was the Native Land Act of 1913, which set aside only 7.3 percent of the country's land as reserves where black people could live, prohibiting blacks from buying land outside the reserves. Another, the Mines and Works Act of 1911, legislated segregation in the workplace by limiting black workers to the lowest level jobs.

The black people of southern Africa had resisted their conquest since the first colonists had begun taking over their land and enslaving them, but they had been overcome—first by military power and disease, then by government-enforced legislation. The African National Congress, which formed in 1910 in response to the segregation laws, was one of the major organizations of resistance.

During the late 1940s, the right-wing National Party gained power. They introduced the word "apartheid" to describe South Africa's system of racial separation and increased the inequities, launching a dual education system that ensured that most blacks would remain uneducated and powerless.

First Stirrings of Activism

It was this unfair system of education that led to Simon Nkoli's first experiences with resistance to apartheid. In 1974, a new law was passed requiring all black schools to use and teach the white South African language Afrikaans. Most black South Africans associated Afrikaans with the hated apartheid regime and did not want to use it. Unrest over this issue along with general anger at the treatment of blacks exploded in 1976 in the Soweto uprising.

As a student at the time, Nkoli joined his fellow students in protesting the Afrikaans requirement. Students went on strike, refusing to go to class. On June 16, 1976, 23 people died when police greeted a peaceful rally with tear gas and guns. Though the Soweto Massacre was tragic, it demonstrated the callousness of the white regime and injected a new energy into the antiapartheid movement.

In 1979, Nkoli joined a student resistance group called the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), soon becoming the secretary for the Transvaal region. However, his participation in the movement to end apartheid would always go hand-in-hand with his fight for gay rights. He "came out" to his comrades in COSAS, who, after discussing the issue, decided that he should remain in the office of secretary.

At a Glance …

Born Tseko Simon Nkoli on November 26, 1957, in Phiri, Soweto, South Africa; died on November 30, 1998, in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Congress of South African Students, member, 1979; Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand, co-founder, 1989; Township AIDS Project, co-founder, 1990; National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, co-founder, 1994.

Selected memberships:

Congress of South African Students; African National Congress; United Democratic Front; Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand; National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality.

Selected awards:

Stonewall Award (United Kingdom), 1996; International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Felipa Award (posthumous), 1999.

Became a Leader

Nkoli realized that he needed the support of other gay and lesbian people in order to go on with his work. In 1980, he joined the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), a largely white gay group. However being one of very few black members of GASA was difficult and painful. Apartheid restrictions often prevented him from attending events, and the indifference of the white gay community angered Nkoli. He decided that he needed to find black gays and, placing an advertisement in a black newspaper, he set about forming a black South African gay and lesbian organization. Together with those who answered his ad, he started The Saturday Group, South Africa's first black gay organization.

Nkoli continued to work for the rights of black people, joining the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDC). However, the South African government responded harshly to those who resisted its laws. In 1984, Nkoli was arrested with 21 other activists and charged with treason and murder. The case, which became known as the Delmas treason trial, lasted for four years, and Nkoli remained in prison until he was released on bail on June 30, 1987. As always, he was honest and open about his sexual orientation, stating that he could not have committed the crime he was charged with, because he had been at a meeting of a gay and lesbian group.

Nkoli's work to end apartheid and his courage during his years in prison earned the respect of those who worked with him. Even those who had been prejudiced against gay people began to understand their issues in a new way. Ken Davis of Green Left Online quotes Terror Lekota, another defendant in the Delmas trial who later became national chair of the ANC, "All of us acknowledge that Simon's coming out was an important learning experience…. How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, should now be discriminated against?"

Nkoli was finally acquitted of all charges in the Delmas trial in 1988. He then returned to his activism and formed a new and important organization: The Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). GLOW was the first gay and lesbian organization that was based in the black townships surrounding Johannesburg. Though membership in GLOW was open to all, it was largely black.

Affected Political Change

GLOW took an important role in South African politics. As resistance to the injustice of apartheid increased around the world, GLOW worked hard both to end the segregated state and to insist that equal rights must apply to all. With Simon Nkoli as its first chair, GLOW spoke out in the media and organized demonstrations, including South Africa's first gay pride in 1990. The group also spoke out against homophobia within the anti-apartheid movement. David Beresford, a writer for the Guardian Unlimited, quotes Nkoli at the first gay pride march in Johannesburg, "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."

By the end of the 1980s, it had become apparent to most white South Africans that apartheid was a failed system. President F.W. de Klerk began removing some of the most oppressive legislation and released Nelson Mandela, the president of the ANC, from prison, where he had been held for twenty-seven years. By 1994, Mandela himself had been elected the first black president of South Africa. One of the first goals of the new government was to draft a new constitution. It is largely thanks to the work of Simon Nkoli and the gay and lesbian organizations that he brought together that the new South African constitution, ratified in 1996, became the first in the world to forbid discrimination against gays and lesbians. The government would soon recognize gay partners, allow gay adoption, and extend health and tax benefits to gay families, becoming one of the most progressive nations on earth in terms of gay and lesbian rights.

In 1994, Nkoli initiated more growth in the gay and lesbian movement in South Africa when he helped found the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE). Connecting progressive organizations throughout the country, NCGLE was a racially mixed group with black leadership.

Battled AIDS Epidemic

While the battle against apartheid was being won, an even more desperate battle was beginning. During the late 1980s, the dramatic increase of the AIDS epidemic on the African continent was becoming an important issue for gay and lesbian Africans. What government support there was for people with AIDS was largely unavailable to gay people, who were too often either blamed or ignored. To counter such attitudes, Nkoli helped found the Township AIDS project in 1990, which worked with GLOW to educate gays about the disease and to fight for improved treatment.

Sadly, Nkoli himself contracted the disease and fell victim to society's inadequate response to the epidemic. He died on November 30, 1998 in Johannesburg, largely because he could not afford medication to treat his AIDS-related illness. His funeral was a testament to his lifelong work to connect the many different struggles for social justice in South Africa. His coffin was draped with a rainbow flag, a symbol of tolerance and diversity, as activists from a wide variety of groups came to say goodbye to a friend and leader. His speech at the first gay pride in 1990, quoted by Beresford on Guardian Unlimited captured much of the spirit if Simon Nkoli's life, "I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles…. 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."



Gevisser, Mark, and Edwin Cameron, Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, Routledge, 1995.

Krouse, Matthew, and Kim Berman, eds., The Invisible Ghetto: Lesbian and Gay Writing from South Africa, Gay Men's Press, 1995.


Advocate, January 16, 1990, pp. 44-5; November 17, 1992, pp. 44-47; May 28, 1996, pp. 35-7.

Gay Community News, September 13-19, 1987, p. 9; 1998, pp. 18-21.

Progressive, March 1990, p. 14.


Simon & I, Women Make Movies, 2001.


"Hamba kahle (farewell) Simon Nkoli," Green Left Online,www.greenleft.org.au/1999/345/19684 (February 24, 2007).

"Queer State funeral in Sebokeng," Q Online,www.q.co.za/regulars/cohen/981215-nkolifuneral.htm (February 24, 2007).

"Simon Nkoli," glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gay culture.www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/nkoli_ts.html (February 24, 2007).

"Simon Nkoli," Biography Resource Center,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 24, 2007).

"South Africa: Pride and Prejudice," Guardian Unlimited,www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,,1981395,00.html (February 24, 2007).

                                                                —Tina Gianoulis