The Daily Agenda for Monday, November 26

Jim Burroway

November 26th, 2012

Simon Tseko Nkoli: 1957. Born in Soweto, Nkoli became a youth activist against apartheid with the Congress of South African Students and with the United Democratic Front. He also became a gay rights activist when he joined the mainly white Gay Association of South African in 1983 and later formed the Saturday Group, the first black gay group in Africa. Nkoli’s anti-apartheid activism led to his arrest in 1984, when he faced the death penalty for treason with twenty-one others who became collectively known as the Delmas 22. While prisoner, he came out as gay. Fearing that the state would use his homosexuality against the entire group, the others of the Delmas 22 demanded a separate trial. But in the end he won them over and they stood trial together because, as they all realized, they were in the same struggle together. As Nkoli later wrote in the anthology, Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, “If you are black in South Africa, the inhuman laws of apartheid closet you. If you are gay in South Africa, the homophobic customs and laws of this society closet you. If you are black and gay in South Africa, well, then it really is all the same closet, the same wardrobe. Inside is darkness and oppression. Outside is freedom. It is as simple as that.”

By coming out as gay while a prisoner against apartheid, he is credited with helping to change the attitude of the African National Congress toward gay rights. Patrick “Terror” Lekota, who later became chairman of the ANC, remarked, “all of us acknowledged that [Nkoli’s coming out] was an important learning experience . . . His presence made it possible for more information to be discussed, and it broadened our vision, helping us to see that society is composed of so many people whose orientations are not the same, and that one must be able to live with it.” And so, when it came to writing the Constitution, “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?”

After his acquittal and release from prison in 1988, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), which organized South Africa’s first Gay Pride march in 1990. He also was among the first African gay men to come out publicly as HIV-positive and founded Positive African Men in Johannesburg. He was among the first gay activists to meet with President Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he campaigned successfully for anti-discrimination measures on the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution. Nkoli lived long enough to see South African repeal its sodomy law in 1998, shortly before he died on November 30.

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