Simon Nkoli’s fight for queer rights in South Africa is finally being celebrated – 24 years after he died
Born in 1957, Simon Tseko Nkoli had just turned 41 when he died, in 1998, of an AIDS-related illness. In his short life, the South African activist fought against different forms of oppression. He fought for those downtrodden because of their “race”. He stood up for those ostracised because of their HIV status. His greatest fight, though, was for those persecuted because of their sexual orientation.
Nkoli was born and raised in Soweto, the largest black township in a South Africa ruled by a white minority who enforced apartheid, a system of racial segregation. His activism began in 1980 when he joined the Congress of South African Students, a youth organisation fighting apartheid.
In 1984, Nkoli was arrested and became a trialist in the Delmas Treason Trial. During his imprisonment, he came out as gay to his comrades. This caused much debate in the liberation movement but it was important in changing the attitude of the African National Congress (ANC) to gay rights. The ANC would go on to govern the country with the advent of democracy in 1994, helping shape the first constitution in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nkoli was responsible for setting up diverse projects including organising the first Pride march in Africa.
There has been a growing wave of interest in Nkoli’s life. South African musician Majola sings about queer love in isiXhosa, one of the country’s most widely spoken languages. His 2017 album Boet/Sissy has a song dedicated to the activist. Also noteworthy is the South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s sculptural work on Nkoli. A new South African musical production by composer Philip Miller called GLOW: The Life and Trials of Simon Nkoli is set to launch in 2023.
The annual Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture is another event that celebrates the legacy of the late activist. The ninth edition was held in November 2022, co-organised by the Simon Nkoli Collective, where I gave the keynote address.
I argued that Nkoli’s activism highlighted the intersectionality of systems of oppression. Intersectionality refers to how multiple social struggles are interlinked. It recognises the interconnectedness of various systems of oppression such as racism, sexism and homophobia.
Nkoli was acutely aware of how these were interrelated and this article considers what can be learnt from his activism today.
Intersectional systems of oppression
In a compelling speech in 1990 ...