Remembering Simon Nkoli: The White-washing of LGBT History in South Africa

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.”





South Africa’s Gay Rights–San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 22, 1996

I wrote this article for the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1996 after four trips to South Africa. I had the great fortune to interview the major players in the movement to include sexual orientation in the new constitution. Unfortunately, this article is not currently on-line. The Bay Guardian plans to open up archives of this once important San Francisco newspaper in the future.


PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA- On May 8 1996 South Africa became the world’s first country to constitutionally outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Constitutional Assembly’s vote to approve a new constitution and bill of rights not only completed the process of dismantling the apartheid regime but also ushered in a new era for gay and lesbian rights.

This historic achievement can be traced to the intervention and dedication of a few key people who made the case for a more inclusive definition of equality and human rights in the new constitution.

Kevan Botha, a lobbyist for the Johannesburg-based National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, a political organization founded in December 1994, says that while most South Africans’ perceptions of discrimination were race-based, people now “can identify with the indignity and arbitrariness of  multiple discrimination.”

One of the first activists to effectively bring sexual orientation into national discussions on discrimination was Edwin Cameron. Cameron is a leading anti-apartheid lawyer who has taken part in numerous landmark cases involving forced eviction, relocation, and conscientious objection to obligatory military service. Now a judge on South Africa’s Supreme Court, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. District Court, Cameron is probably the highest-ranking openly gay judge in the world.

During the 1980s, Cameron was especially active with the black trade union movement, then led by Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa, a likely successor to President Nelson Mandela, heads the parliament’s Constitutional Assembly, a special assembly formed after the 1994 elections to write the country’s new constitution.

Pretoria prison

Simon Nkoli, a gay student activist, has also influenced South African politics as a defendant in one of the largest apartheid trials, the Delmas treason trial. In 1984 Nkoli was arrested along with 21 other blacks for participating in a rent strike in Sebokeng, a township outside Johannesburg. All 22 spent nearly two years in Cell 36 of Pretoria Prison before· being formally charged with murder and treason.

Although Nkoli had been public about his sexual orientation before his arrest, few in the group of detainees knew that he was gay. In prison the group met daily to plan for their release. One day Nkoli came out to the group. Their reaction was hardly supportive.

“They didn’t want me to [testify],” Nkoli told the Bay Guardian; because they were worried that “state prosecutors would use my homosexuality to discredit [us] all.”

However, the long wait in prison gave Nkoli the opportunity to challenge the homophobic attitudes of his fellow detainees. By the time of their trial Nkoli had won not only the group’s acceptance of his homosexuality but also its support for including gays in South Africa s human rights movement.

Sheila Lapinski, another activist, also has helped make gays and lesbians a force in the human rights movement. In 1987 she helped formed the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA) in Capetown. In 1989 OLGA became the first and only gay organization to join the United Democratic Front (UDF), the country’s leading anti-apartheid organization. This link enabled OLGA to organize discussions on gay and lesbian oppression with other human rights and political organizations, which led to higher-level contacts within both  UDF and the African National Congress (ANC).

 A new start

Nelson Mandela was freed Feb. 11, 1990, after two and a half decades in prison. Soon afterward the ANC was “unbanned” by the apartheid regime, and negotiations began among the ANC and the ruling parties to form a new government. The negotiators met in the Johannesburg suburb of Kempton Park to negotiate the government transition and develop an interim constitution.

In early 1991 Edwin Cameron was called in by the ANC and the Democratic Party, a mostly white moderate political party, to help write the early drafts of the country’s new constitution. These drafts incorporated a non discrimination clause that included sexual orientation along with race, gender, ethnic origin, color, age disability, and religion.

But the day-to-day negotiations on the constitution were being held behind closed doors, and Cameron and others were concerned that the sexual orientation clause might be dropped. In response to their worries the Equality Foundation, a Johannesburg-based human rights group, hired Kevan Botha in 1992 to lobby the negotiators to keep the clause.

Cameron says these lobbying efforts were a critical juncture in the country’s gay-rights movement. He recalled one cold-Sunday evening in May 1993 when he received word that all references to specific forms of discrimination-except for race  and gender had been dropped from the draft constitution. He and Botha quickly wrote the negotiators arguing that a broad discrimination clause was too vague to guarantee the rights of those not mentioned specifically. They also wrote in their memo, which can be found on the Constitutional Assembly’s World Wide Web page, that discrimination [on the ground of sexual orientation] is often arbitrary and based on innate prejudice with no empirical basis. Discrimination in this context requires that any protection be clear [and] comprehensive.

After continued lobbying, the sexual orientation clause was put back in the draft.

At the end of April 1994 Mandela was elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. A few weeks later the interim constitution, including its new protections for gays and lesbians, went into effect. Despite this victory, Cameron said, the struggle was far from over.

After the elections the newly elected 400-member Constitutional Assembly, headed by Cyril Ramaphosa, was to write the final version of the new constitution. Mandela’s new government also brought the constitution-writing process out from behind closed doors and into the public arena. Citizens were invited to review the interim constitution and comment on its provisions.

Members of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), a religious conservative political party that received only 7 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections, began flooding the assembly with letters protesting the sexual-orientation clause. According to Botha, the ACDP has been given tactical advice from American Christian right groups. In 1994 the group circulated copies of The Gay Agenda, a video produced by a U.S. group known as The Report that depicts gay life in America, in an attempt to turn public opinion against the discrimination protection for gays and lesbians.

At this point the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement realized it had to take a more open approach to protecting its newfound status. In December 1994 a coalition of more than 60 gay and lesbian organizations formed the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. OLGA’s Lapinski became a co-chair. The group decided to dedicate itself to a single issue-keeping the sexual-orientation clause in the constitution. Soon it became the only nonpolitical party in Capetown to have a full-time lobbyist.

In June 1995 thousands of South African gays and lesbians wrote the assembly to support the clause and to describe their own experiences with discrimination. Ramaphosa later cited many of these letters in his rebuttal to the ACDP’s claims that protection was not needed.

While the one-on-one lobbying of individual politicians continued, Botha and others worked to increase public awareness of and support for the clause, especially in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu became an early and vocal supporter. His support, combined with the coalition’s efforts to bring the various religious communities into the debate, helped blunt the impact of the ACDP’s protests.

On May 8 the Constitutional Assembly approved the final version of the new constitution—with the sexual orientation clause intact.

Botha says he feels that as these new rights are tested, there will be both victories and setbacks. However, he added, South Africans’ expectations for equal treatment are higher than ever.

“South Africa will be the one to carry the torch of human rights into the 21st century,” Botha said.



Marching to Pretoria: Adventures in Queer South Africa–SF Frontiers, January 18, 1996

I rediscovered this article I wrote in 1996 and sadly enough, its last paragraph is true again. 

“No person shall be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, and without derogating from the generality of this provision, on one or more of the following grounds in particular: race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.”

Question  1: The  above  quote  comes  from:  a)  San Francisco Human Rights Ordinance, b) Apple Computer’s corporate policy, or c) South Africa’s interim constitution.

Question 2: You can find a nationally celebrated drag performer interviewing politicians with her own television show on: a) SciFi Channel, b) Australian Broadcasting System, or c) M-NET South Africa.

Question 3: What is going on down there anyway?

Shedding its racist, puritanical past, the New South Africa is changing daily, in a process that is as amazing to outsiders as it is bewildering to those who live there. 1nmy fourth trip to South Africa over the last four years, and in my first trip since the first democratic elections last year brought in Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity, I experienced a South Africa that was only dreamed about a few years ago. South Africa is now looking to the future, a future that among other things, is queer. The dream and reality of the New South Africa can be seen in the city most connected with its past, Pretoria

The White Bread City

As the home to white Afrikaner bureaucrats, Pretoria had the distinction of being the world’s most boring city. ‘Blacks could not live within the city limits and were forced to leave in the evening. And so did pretty much everyone else.  Stores closed early  and  the  streets were  generally deserted after 6 p.m. Only at brightly lit malls, painted in pink and turquoise, could you find some cinema-goers in the evening. Movies were highly censored, eliminating sex and controversial issues. No films were shown on Sundays, the day of rest.

The gay bars of Pretoria were quiet affairs, hidden away and discrete except for weekends when things picked up a bit. But it was generally agreed that all of the action was in Johannesburg. This time, entering Pretoria I was aware that even here change was happening.  There were blacks on the streets,  all  over the city, day and night.  And even more surprising to me, my “gaydar” started working for the first time ever in my several South African travels. Previously, it always seemed to be on the blink, never registering any like kinds, often not even in the gay bars. This time it started beeping before I had even pulled into the Holiday Inn.

The Holiday Inn had changed a bit, but not much..My shock  came,  however, one evening while I was waiting for a friend. A handsome young black man entered the hotel and ran up the escalator, not before giving me a big smile. A few minutes later he ran down outside, giving me another smile. We started to talk and within minutes we were making plans to ditch our friends, when my ride showed up. Waving good bye, it dawned on me that I had been cruised by a black man in the Holiday Inn in Pretoria Perhaps not a startling occurrence elsewhere, but a world shattering occurrence in Pretoria. I decided to find out more.

Drag in the State Theater

Standing blocky and imposing, the State Theater complex in Pretoria was built as a monument to white straight culture. It regularly serves up “The Sound of Music” and other hits, while also presenting the Symphony and Opera. Gay sensibility has never made a big showing here… that is until now. On my second night in the city, I went to see a performance of Pieter Dirk Uys, a well known South African satirist. Seeing Uys at the State Theater is the equivalent of seeing our Joan Jett Black at the Kennedy Center. Uys is best known for his drag persona Evita Bezedenhuit, the ambassadress of the New South Africa

Last year, Evita had her own hour-long television show where she interviewed prominent South African politicians. Typically, Evita managed to set her interviewee at ease, as she was graciously escorted around their home or, sometimes, office. Often arm in arm with her host, she would lob off-the-cuff but on-target questions about the issues of the day. On one show, Jay Naidoo, one of Mandela’s cabinet ministers, mentioned an interest in learning to dance.  On a whim, the pair rushed off to a local dance studio, where they learned the rumba—all on  film. After it was over, Naidoo exclaimed to Evita, “I’ve never Latin danced before,” to which Evita replied, “Jay, I doubt if you have ever danced with a man in drag before!” Nonplussed, Naidoo agreed that that was true.

Uys reported that he as now seen Nelson Mandela four times, each time in drag. The last time, Mandela gave Evita a big hug to which she replied, “Nelson, we have got to stop meeting this way.”

Other South African leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, complained to Uys that they were not satirized in his show. So now Uys sports a frock and a grey wig to portray Tutu in his State Theater show.

The Church

For the most part, Afrikanerdom is associated with the Church. And there is only one church, the Afrikaans Reformed Church. The Church has helped form the theological connections to apartheid as well as to the general Victorianism that was part and parcel of the old South Africa. In fact, today the only political party opposed to the sexual orientation provision in the Constitution is the African Christian Democratic Party,  a small church-affiliated group. But once again, a revolution is brewing in Pretoria.

I sat talking to a gay Afrikaner couple in their mid-30s one evening. One spoke fluent English, but his partner stumbled a bit more. He explained that he had few chances to speak English with anyone, so I must excuse him, not an uncommon remark in the tightly closed Afrikaner community. The conversation turned to religion and they mentioned that they both were very active in their church. When I asked how they could be, given the Church’s stand on homosexuality, they laughed. Their minister, they explained, just got back from the U.S., where he was exploring affiliation with h t h e Metropolitan Community Church. The shocked look on my face encouraged them to continue. Their several-year-old church has weekly services in Afrikaans for gays and lesbians that are deeply spiritual as well as affirming. Ina few short years under their dynamic minister, the church grew from 15 or so members to over 500, much larger than a similar church in the more progressive Johannesburg.  The church has performed several marriages and was gradually moving out in the wider community.

The Bar and the Constitution

On Friday and Saturday nights, Steamers, is the place to be in Pretoria. Parking in the railway station lot across the street, you can hear the music and see the hoards of men and women making their way over to the club. Unlike many South African gay bars, this one is not content to hide away behind some anonymous door. Instead, the patrons spill out into the veranda and the parking lot, greeting friends, flirting and generally making a scene. You know it is gay long before you actually approach the door.

Steamers gets going a bit early compared to “Joburg” bars, which are more attuned to international gay time. By 9:30 p.m. the dance floor is filling up and by 10:30 p.m. it is packed. And it seems for the first time in my experience, local men are cruising. This statement may sound absurd, but previously, I have discovered that the only men who were interested in talking or dancing invariably turned out to be foreigners. Afrikaner men, especially, were known to be aloof. Men of color operate differently, but they are still scarce in the Pretoria bar scene.

An Afrikaner in a white T-shirt and black leather vest approaches me. He’s surprised to meet an American and feels like he’s made some type of a catch. We chat a bit and then head to the dance floor. The music is good and there is a nice mix of gay men and lesbians packing the floor. After a bit, he takes me back upstairs to meet some of his friends.

His group is composed of standard Afrikaner bureaucratic-class types with lower level jobs in the government. They come down to the bar about every other week and stay until closing. We talk of the U.S. and comparisons to South Africa. They are keenly interested in how the world is looking at them now. One talked of going to Amsterdam a few years ago and being spit upon when he introduced himself as South African.

Despite their Afrikaner background, they were wildly pro-Mandela and were even warming to his party, the ANC. In addition to Mandela’s leadership skills that  are unifying  the  country, the main reason that brought this group to enthusiastically support him was the changes in the constitution’s equality clause.  “Before the Interim Constitution took effect, this place was dead and gays were pretty quiet. Now look at it…Once the final Constitution is put into effect, you can expect more and more gays and lesbians to come out. We have nothing to fear now.”

The gay community has been actively lobbying the constitutional commission and the movement to endorse the equality clause of the Constitution has gotten support from most public officials throughout the country. Most recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has declared his support for the inclusion of sexual orientation. The rationale for support is quite simple: after years of oppression based on color, those in power do not want to see politically based oppression of any type. While attitudes may take some time to change, the Constitution is unambiguous and clear: equality before the law is to be cherished.

On the Streets

A gay presence in Pretoria is even starting to become evident on the streets. Sunnyside, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown, is emerging as Pretoria’s place to be. There are a number of restaurants, catering to a wide choice of tastes. The local bookstore has a wide selection of books and magazines and an interesting gay section. Some light porn is even available now.

As everywhere in Pretoria, the local mall dominates Sunnyside. During the evening, gay couples and cruising single men can be seen riding the escalators to the shops and restaurants and movie house. And while a Castro habitué may not notice much difference, the fact that any gay presence exists is a new miracle.

Night life is still low key and, at best, circumscribed. There are not that many places to go in Pretoria. One new gay-friendly coffeehouse opened on the historic Church Square in the heart of the downtown. Owned by two women, Cafe Riche offers a friendly and intimate venue that is rare in the mallified architecture of the city. With the original marble counters and wood paneling from its 1905 predecessor still in place, a mixed inter-racial crowd of hip younger folks and gays and lesbians patronize the cafe.

Not all of gay life is dependent on constitutional protections.  Gays and lesbians have long been around and quietly out in Pretoria. I met several couples who have been together for 10 and 15 years, living their lives in privacy that most Afrikaner’s cherish. However, a new opening and tolerance is also apparent. I saw a number of bed and breakfasts that advertised in straight publications, listing their hosts as Jack and Alex or Pieter and Jan and gay movies, such as “The Sum of Us,” playing at multiplex theaters.

Pretoria still holds true to certain patterns. I only noticed one interracial couple, conspicuous in the general whiteness of the Pretoria gay and lesbian scene. People of color are generally missing from the bar scene in Pretoria, belaying the fact that 80 percent of the country’s population is black. And among many of the Afrikaner men that I met on this trip, racism is still a part of their lives and outlook. In fact, they often thought that my observations of Pretoria were amusing, at best. Where I saw a night life developing, they saw more blacks on the streets at night. Where I saw a wonderful diversity, they saw more blacks on the streets. Where I saw… Well, you get the picture.

Coming back to the U.S. after each of my trips to South Africa has always given me cause for reflection. In the past, I was aware of the way our two countries were similar—institutionalized racism being part and parcel of the experience in both countries. Before, I had the sense—perhaps chauvinistically—that we were at least attempting to deal with our problems, while South Africa was creating new ones. However, this time my return home was different. South Africa has gone from being a pariah to a country promoting the greatest respect for universal human rights in the world. Here at home, however, our political debate is about closing our doors on diversity and equality, as politicians seek to identify scapegoats for problems-immigrants, welfare mothers, anyone of color, and gays.

I never imagined that I would come home from South Africa thinking that they offered us a model. But as the right wing dominates the dialogue in the United States, I find myself looking for our own version of Nelson Mandela, someone so secure in his understanding of oppression that he believes no one else should endure the suffering that he and his people have experienced. Despite the preeminence of U.S. gay culture around the world, we indeed have much we can learn.

This article was originally published in S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine on January 18, 1996. Unfortunately it is not available in any on-line archives.