“If you are Black and gay in South Africa, then it really is all the same closet…inside is darkness and oppression. Outside is freedom.”
— Simon Tseko Nkoli
Simon Tseko Nkoli was a gay activist and anti-apartheid leader who fought for freedom and social justice in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle. His courage to live openly as a gay man coupled with his tireless work within the anti-apartheid movement help shift the anti-gay opinions of many of those within the movement. His eventual arrest shifted both the anti-apartheid struggle and the gay liberation movement. Through living his truth and owning his identity, Nkoli facilitated a cross-over of the anti-apartheid and gay liberation movements, demonstrating how these two struggles shared common ground in their fight for equality. Nkoli was integral in founding a number of major gay rights movements and organisations in the country including the Gay Asociation of South Africa (GASA) and most notably, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). His work within these organisations would lay the foundations for South Africa to become the first country in the world to constitutionalize the protection of the rights of LGBTQI+ people.
Nkoli was born in Soweto, Gauteng on 26 November 1957 as one of four children. His family lived in a state of poverty and extreme segregation. The strict pass laws (LINK TO: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/pass-laws-south-africa-1800-1994) of the time made it illegal for the entire family to live together, and Nkoli’s childhood memories include moments of hiding from the police with his family to avoid prosecution. His parents separated in his early childhood and he was sent to live with his grandparents in the Orange Free State. Nkoli’s grandparents were tenant farmers, and he was made to work on the farm alongside them under the strict governance of the farm’s white owner. He realised at an early age that his best chance at a better future started with education. He enrolled at school while continuing to work on the farm. When he turned 13, Nkoli faced pressure from his grandparents and their white landlord to quit school and work full time on the farm. Fearful of losing his education, Nkoli fled to Johannesburg. There, he was reunited with his mother and her new husband in the township of Sebokeng and continued his schooling under their guidance.
Coming Out and Meeting Roy Shepard
During his teenage years, Nkoli began to discover his sexuality. Nkoli would come out to his family at 20, to be met with much fear and anger as they did not know or understand much about homosexuality. As a result, Nkoli’s mother and stepfather would take him to priests, traditional healers and a psychiatrist in a bid to change his sexual orientation.
When Nkoli was 19, he met Roy Shepherd through a pen pal magazine. Shepard was a white bus driver from Johannesburg. The two soon began a romantic relationship, and would become life long partners. While Shepherd’s family had accepted his homosexuality, it was the revelation that he was romantically involved with a black man which they refuted. Shepard’s family’s refusal to accept the relationship and Nkoli’s family’s attempts at conversion tactics devastated the couple, who vowed to commit suicide together if they were not allowed to see each other. Upon discovering this heartbreaking plan, Nkoli’s mother came to accept her son’s sexuality and relationship, convincing the two to abandon their pact. By chance, the psychiatrist Nkoli’s family took him to was a gay man who supported Nkoli and Shepard. He proposed a way that the two could live together in secret; with Nkoli posing as a servant.
Beginnings of Activism
Nkoli’s life had always been affected by the Apartheid state; from hiding his parents to avoid prosecution due to overcrowding in his childhood home to his relationship with Shepard. As a result, he developed an innate understanding of the injustices faced by black South Africans under laws enforced by an unfair system.
In 1980 while attending a secretarial college in Johannesburg, Nkoli joined his first resistance group; the Congress of South African Students or COSAS. He soon became the secretary for the group’s Transvaal division. Nkoli knew that his sexuality may cause issues for him within the freedom movement, as homosexuality was not something that everyone in the movement accepted or understood. He was also aware that his fight for democracy and his fight for equality were intrinsically linked, and that in order to commit himself to the struggle he would have to honour his truth.
The revelation of his sexuality to COSAS led to many debates. Ultimately, Nkoli was permitted to retain his position. He became a member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of South Africa (GASA) in an attempt to reconcile both sides of his activism. However, Nkoli found that GASA was predominantly white. GASA was also firmly “apolitical”, an incredibly white point of view for the time. GASA disagreed with Nkoli’s anti-apartheid work, and refused to support him on issues of race relations which Nkoli felt were essential for GASA to address.
In 1984, during a protest march against rent increases in Sebokeng Gauteng, police intercepted the protestors and tear gassed them. They then opened fire, killing around twenty people. At the funeral for the fallen, on 23 September 1984, police arrived at the cemetery and arrested 22 political leaders who were involved with the protests. Nkoli was one of them. He would be detained for nine months before the state laid charges. Notably, Nkoli and the 21 others arrested were associated with the United Democratic Front (UDF) (Link to: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/united-democratic-front-udf) which the government saw as a threat to the state. When they eventually laid charges, they were severe. Nkoli and his peers were charged with treason, with the possibility of the death penalty. This was the beginning of the Delmas Treason Trial, which would become one of the longest running trials in South African history spanning 240 days in court. It would be two years from the date of his charges for Nkoli to be released on bail and another two years before the trial was declared invalid and Nkoli acquitted of all charges against him.
Nkoli’s detention did not sit well with GASA. They ultimately decided to refuse to support him, and threw him out of the association. At the same time, Nkoli’s sexuality became known to his fellow prisoners. This sparked debate amongst them, with many arguing that Nkoli should be tried separately, fearing that his sexuality would further condemn them all if he were tried with them. Ultimately, his fellow prisoners came to realise that his sexuality meant little in the larger fight against apartheid. They learnt from Nkoli that no one should be discriminated against, and decided to stand trial together.
In 1988, two years after his release from detention and following his acquittal, Nkoli founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). GLOW was both a reaction to GASA’s white apolitical standpoint and Nkoli’s solution to reconciling both sides of his activism. Unlike GASA, GLOW was not apolitical and did not ignore the injustices of apartheid. It was also the first Gay and Lesbian organisation to function in the black townships surrounding Johannesburg. GLOW included a number of black leaders, and supported more than just the white LGBTQ+ communities. Through GLOW, Nkoli found much success and travelled extensively to discuss his organisation with other leaders. Alongside Julia Nicol, Nkoli and GLOW were instrumental in ensuring that the rights of LGBTQI+ people were included in South Africa’s new constitution. Through his activism, Nkoli led South Africa to become the first country in the world to do this once the country had achieved democracy. This monumental enshrinement of LGBTQI+ rights meant that the adoption, work and family rights were extended to the gay community and these rights were protected under the supreme law. He became the first openly gay activist in the country to meet with Nelson Mandela.
First Pride March and Other Projects
In 1990, together with GLOW member Beverly (Bev) Ditsie, Nkoli organised the country’s first ever Gay Pride march in Johannesburg. It was a monumental day for the rights and visibility of LGBTQI+ people in the country. At the beginning of the march, Nkoli said the following:
"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."
That same year, Nkoli helped found the Township Aids Project, which sought to educate gays about the disease and counteract the epidemic that began in the 80s. Working with GLOW, the project became a forum and resource for gays in the townships to learn about the disease and grant them access to treatment. In 1994, the year South Africa’s democracy was born, Nkoli continued to grow the gay community by establishing the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) which connected organisations supporting gay rights across the country.
HIV status and Death
Nkoli contracted HIV himself. He would fall victim to the disease he fought against through the Township Aids Project; South Africa and society’s inadequate response to the exponential growth of the disease.
He died due to HIV-related illnesses on 30 November 1998 in Johannesburg. He was 41 years old. At his funeral, the Pride Flag was draped upon Nkoli’s coffin. It was a symbol of his unique struggle and incredible perseverance, which paved the way for the future of LGBTQI+ people in South Africa.
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