Black gay anti-Apartheid activist Simon Tseko Nkoli played a key role in the fight for GLBT liberation and human rights for people with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Born in 1957 in Soweto, Nkoli became an anti-Apartheid activist at a young age. After multiple arrests for civil disobedience, including participation in the 1976 Soweto student uprising, he joined the Congress of South African Students, the African National Congress (ANC), and the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Nkoli began his first serious relationship at age 19, with a white bus driver. After Nkoli revealed this to his mother, she sent him to a series of local healers; a Christian priest; and finally a psychologist, who turned out to be gay himself, and advised the lovers to live together—even if Nkoli had to pose as his partner’s servant to evade racial segregation laws.
In his early 20s, after coming out in a newspaper interview, Nkoli joined the newly formed Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), which consisted mostly of middle-class white men. Resolutely apolitical, the group resisted his requests to hold social events at nonsegregated venues, leading him to form the Saturday Group, the country’s first black gay organization, in 1984.
Around the same time, Nkoli helped organize a tenant rent strike in the town of Delmas. Charged with killing a man by throwing a rock during a protest, he was arrested and imprisoned. Along with 21 other black activist leaders, he was tried in 1986 for subversion, conspiracy, and treason.
While awaiting trial, Nkoli revealed his homosexuality to his codefendants—ANC and UDF members who later would hold positions in the post-Apartheid government—who came to respect him as a gay man.
Though Nkoli became a cause célèbre for gay rights activists around the world, he received minimal support from the accomodationist GASA.
In 1988, the charges against Nkoli were dropped, and he was released.
Soon thereafter, Nkoli cofounded the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand—the country’s first genuinely integrated GLBT organization—and later the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (now the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project).
“I am black and I am gay,” Nkoli proclaimed at the first South African Pride March in 1990. “I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggle. They will be all one struggle.”
Serving as an International Lesbian and Gay Association board member representing Africa, Nkoli earned numerous honors for his work.
Nkoli’s anti-Apartheid activism and ties with movement leaders proved instrumental in winning national support for gay rights. In 1994, he met with Nelson Mandela, whose election as President marked the end of the Apartheid era. As Nkoli had urged, in 1996, South Africa became the first country to include explicit constitutional protection for GLBT people.
Yet, even as the gay movement gained strength, and the Apartheid regime crumbled, the AIDS epidemic reached crisis proportions in the 1990s. Diagnosed with HIV, Nkoli turned his focus to AIDS activism, cofounding groups including the Township AIDS Project.
After experiencing increasing bouts of ill health, Nkoli died of an AIDS-related infection in 1998.
Though Nkoli himself was not able to benefit from effective new HIV drugs, his work for universal treatment access inspired the birth of the Treatment Action Campaign, which today widely is regarded as the strongest AIDS activist group in the world.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.