Tsholofelo Wesi
3 minute read
15 Oct 2015
11:38 am

Remembering anti-apartheid activist who fought homophobia

Tsholofelo Wesi

While Simon Nkoli stood against Apartheid’s racial injustice, his tough stance against homophobia put him at odds with both the state and his fellow anti-Apartheid activists.

Simon Nkoli. PHOTO: Mamba Online.

Simon Nkoli Week celebrates and examines his legacy, including the second annual Simon Nkoli Lecture on Thursday, October 22.

Soweto-born Nkoli founded the Saturday Group, South Africa’s first regional gay black organisation as well as co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW), the first national black LGBT+ organisation in South Africa.

Alongside his HIV/AIDS activism, he is today widely credited for his role in the inclusion of the protection of LGBT+ people against discrimination in the Bill of Rights and the repeal of sodomy laws in the new democracy.

Speakers confirmed for the Memorial Lecture include Justice Edwin Cameron, Congress of the People (COPE) leader Mosioua Lekota, Busisiwe Deyi, Kwezi Mbandazayo and Mmapaseka Steve Letsike.

Lekota, United Democratic Front (UDF) leader at the time, and Nkoli were part of the Delmas 22, along with former North West premier and Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) board Chairperson Popo Molefe, who were imprisoned in 1985’s Delmas Treason Trials for attempting to overthrow the state with the use of violence.

During the period of the trial and imprisonment, Nkoli came out about his sexual orientation and challenged his comrades, including Lekota, to acknowledge the oppression of LGBT+ people. When same-sex marriage was legalised in 2006, Lekota spoke in favour of the ruling and attributed his views on the matter to the positive influence of Nkoli and others.

After a battle with AIDS-related illnesses, he died on November 30, 1998, aged 41.

In a statement, organiser of the Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture, Mpho Buntse, said: “Nkoli was a young man who dedicated his life to activism. Like many of us, he was an outgoing, fun loving and vibrant youthful leader. Against all odds, he chose to defy the societal norms of the time by surfacing what was regarded and viewed as taboo; he was in an interracial relationship at a time time when blacks and whites were categorised as two racial groups that were meant to hate each other.”

Buntse said the Memorial Lecture, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg Liberati, began as an idea to preserve the memory and legacy of Nkoli.

Letters that were exchanged between Nkoli and his partner when he was in prison during the Delmas Treason Trial will be on display at the event. The exhibition will also showcase work that has been done featuring Nkoli.

Buntse said: “We single out Nkoli as the starting point of creating such a space, but we envisage annual celebrations of diverse leadership under this Memorial Lecture as means to be conscious around maintaining the culture of celebrity activism.”

A panel will unpack Nkoli’s history and contribution to the LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS movements and the ongoing fight for freedom in South Africa, the statement reads.

“The panel will look at constitutional democracy and the influence of activism in the way that the law was shaped, looking at the intersectionality’s and solidarity in organising in the late 80s, as well as hearing from young voices with regards to how the existence of people like Simon has shaped the way that black love and solidarity manifests itself in today’s work.”

The Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture will take place on October 22 in the Human Rights Room of Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, from 4.30pm to 7.30pm.