In 1996, I had the honor of interviewing the major players who engineered the inclusion of sexual orientation in the South African constitution. Simon Nkoli, Zackie Achmat, Edwin Cameroun and David Botha were among the leaders that I interviewed, each having their own crucial role to play. As I was pulling up the articles I wrote for the Advocate, SF Frontiers Newsmagazine and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, I was reviewing some subsequent writings published around the time of Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013. What I discovered was that the efforts of non-English/Afrikaans players, seem to have been diminished or eliminated completely. In particular, the role of Simon Nkoli was relegated to a small footnote.
I first met Simon inside Johannesburg’s only gay bar in 1996. He had just entered coming in from an AIDS candlelight vigil in the park across the street. He was the only black person in the bar and we struck up a conversation. When he told me his name, my immediate reaction was, “I have been looking all over for you!” My good friend farooq had contacts throughout the entire anti-apartheid and gay movement and Simon was a key member he wanted me to meet.For his out-sized reputation and leadership role, he was about 5’6″, had a goatee and a broad smile that hinted at a more serious side. After questioning about my motives in talking to him (and later I found out checking my background with others), we set up a time to talk.
By this point, he was the President of GLOW, the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand, the multi-racial L/G group he had founded when the larger white run Gay Association of South Africa would not sponsor events in outside the whites-only locations. He was also one of the first South African to come out as being HIV+. While we talked about a number of topics, the one I was most interested in was his role in the anti-apartheid movement leading to the constitution.
His story began with begin arrested with 21 others in 1984 as part of the Delmas rent strike. All of the participants were thrown into a joint cell, including some leaders of the movement. They were in Cell 36 for two years before they were finally charged with the death penalty for treason and murder. Jail time was often utilized as a time to organize, plan defense strategies and educate members of the anti-apartheid movement. At first, Simon did not come out to the group of men, which included some of the major leaders of one of the banned political parties, the United Democratic Front. However over several months, he came out to the group.
For several weeks Nkoli’s sexual orientation was the main discussion of the group. He had some supporters but others were concerned that if the the authorities brought up this issue in the upcoming trial, their whole case might be discredited. Over the time that the group was locked up, they come to recognize Nkoli’s honesty and strength. He was able to convince them in his words and integrity that being gay was one more oppression facing South Africa. Given that the regime would do anything to defame any members of the opposition, honesty and openness would give them less ability to blackmail them. It also did not hurt this case, that Nelson Mandela himself was aware of the young man and sent word that he should be listened to and protected.
When his trial finally occurred, Nkoli testified that on the day in question, he was at a gay rights meeting in one of the black townships. The government lawyers were stunned by this response and asked no more questions. After four years in prison, he was acquitted.
Internally, Nkoli was able to change the attitudes of his comrades and consequently the anti-apartheid movement itself. At the same, LGBT folks active in the international anti-apartheid movement were putting pressure on the African National Congress (ANC) to renounce a statement that “gay were not normal.” In 1987, the ANC’s spokesperson Thabo Mbeki (who eventually became President after Mandela finished his terms in office) announced that the group “is firmly committed to removing all forms of discrimination in a liberated South Africa. That commitment must surely extend to the protection of gay rights.”
Banned for life from participating in political parties, soon after being released Nkoli organized GLOW and in 1990 he was the co-organizer of the first Pride Parade in the country. As the new constitution was being outlined and Mandela was released from prison, he became one of the black spokespeople and leaders for LGBT inclusion.
About this time, the AIDS crisis began to affect South Africa. Nkoli became a national and international spokesperson when he formed the Township AIDS Project and announced that he was HIV+. When I met him, just two years before he died, he had numerous projects he was working on, including a book, which sadly was never completed.
It is quite likely that if Nkoli had not been arrested and come out in jail to his fellow detainees, including sexual orientation in the constitution would not have had the solid support that it did within the ANC. Let us remember his courage today.
The Advocate, May 28, 1996
By Alan Lessik
South Africa’s constitution, which was scheduled to be ratified May 8, makes history by being the world’s first to explicitly prohibit anti-gay discrimination. But the decision to include the ban in the document’s bill of rights was unexpectedly smooth, insiders say, owing at least in part to the nation’s long history of institutionalized racism.
“We know what it is like to be oppressed by a characteristic that is irrelevant, whether it be your skin color or your sexual orientation,” says gay South African supreme court justice Edwin Cameron, who was one of the nation’s leading anti-apartheid attorneys before being elevated to the bench by President Nelson Mandela.
It is the long involvement of Cameron and other gays and lesbians in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement that paved the way for the inclusion of the gay rights clause in the new constitution, activists say. “Edwin was one of the first young lawyers to attack the judiciary for supporting apartheid,” says Zachie Achmat, co-director of the National Coalition on Gay and
Lesbian Equality, a South African gay rights group. “He was more or less out as gay during this time, although he was primarily doing anti-apartheid work, not gay and lesbian work.” During the 80’s Cameron was actively involved with the black trade union movement, helping its leaders make a link between anti-gay oppression and racial oppression.
Another gay anti-apartheid activist, Simon Nkoli, also played a role in bringing gay rights issues to public attention. Nkoli and 21 others were arrested as part of a rent strike in 1984.
Among those arrested with Nkoli were two leaders of the United Democratic Front, South Africa’s leading anti-apartheid organization at the time.
Nkoli says he did not come out as gay to his fellow rent strikers on their first day in detention in the Pretoria prison. “All 22 people were in one cell,” Nkoli says. “On the first day we had a meeting to discuss our backgrounds, family, religion.” Only a few members of the group knew much about Nkoli, and he says he chose not to bring his sexual orientation up at that time.
Several months later, though, he came out to the group, and while a few members were supportive, others were cautious, and some were openly hostile. For several weeks during the strikers’ imprisonment, Nkoli’s sexual orientation was the subject of the group’s daily meetings. Some of the defendants, afraid that prosecutors would use Nkoli’s homosexuality to discredit the entire group, “They wanted me to be quiet and not give evidence,” Nkoli says. However, everyone’s being locked together in the same cell allowed Nkoli to challenge the anti-gay attitudes of some of his fellow detainees.
In addition, gays and lesbians were active in anti-apartheid committees in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Scandinavia, Achmat says. When a leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid
African National Congress (ANC) declared in a London gay newspaper in 1987 that gays and lesbians were “not normal,” an uproar ensued. Foreign funding for the ANC was threatened, and the group was obliged to declare that gays and lesbians were indeed part of the South African revolutionary movement. By November 1987 then‑ANC information director Thabo Mbeki had announced that the group “is firmly committed to removing all forms of discrimination in a liberated South Africa. That commitment must surely extend to the protection of gay rights.”
Cameron says that South Africa’s ground breaking bill of rights will help the cause of gay rights throughout the world. Among judges, he contends, international precedents can influence
how cases are argued and settled. Kevan Botha, a lobbyist for the Equality Foundation, a South African gay rights group, agrees. “Gay rights issues were ones that your founding fathers had not considered in the United States,” he says. “But here the founding fathers have considered them. We are undergoing a paradigm shift where the inconceivable enters the realm of possibility.”