Simon Nkoli’s career went from working as a child on a farm, to getting an education to finally becoming an activist whose lifelong work had a profound impact on the future careers and lives of gay black South Africans.
Through all of this Nkoli not only had to contend with apartheid, but with another, more socially accepted discrimination at the time (and today), homophobia.
He dedicated his life to fighting these injustices and contributed to the emancipation of black people from racial discrimination and the LGBTQ+ community from homo-antagonism.
This key figure in South African history was born in Soweto on November 26, 1957, to a life of poverty. He was one of four children and was sent to live with his grandparents on a farm in the Free State.
Nkoli had to work under harsh conditions on the farm, and if his labour was not to the satisfaction of the white owner, he would be beaten.
He sought to leave the farm and put his hope in getting an education, attending school while also working.
At 13, Nkoli eventually escaped and went back to his mother in Gauteng, and continued with his studies. Nkoli discovered his sexual identity when he was in his teens, but because of rampant homophobia, only came out to his family when he was 20, in 1977. This revelation was not well received, with his family reportedly seeing his sexuality as a sickness that only afflicted white people.
His mother and stepfather sought to rid him of this ‘sickness’ and sent Nkoli to conversion therapy through traditional healers, priests, and psychiatrists.
During this turbulent period, Nkoli found comfort in Roy Shepherd, a pen pal he had connected with a year early through a magazine.
The pair’s burgeoning friendship soon became romantic, and they became lifelong partners.
His anti-apartheid activism began in 1980 when he was at a college in Johannesburg and joined the Congress of South African Students (Cosas), a Struggle group established in 1979.
Nkoli was appointed as the secretary of the Transvaal region. His homosexuality became apparent to the group, but he was allowed to keep his position.
This caused internal conflict within the activist and he joined the Gay and Lesbian Association (Gasa). However, the group did not want to be associated with his anti-apartheid sentiments and work.
“If you are black and gay in South Africa, then it really is all the same closet. Inside is darkness oppression, outside is freedom,” said Nkoli.
On September 23, 1984, the police opened fire on a march against rent increases in the Sebokeng area, killing numerous people, and arrested leading political figures who had taken part in the protest, including Nkoli under the United Democratic Front (UDF).
He faced the death penalty for treason along with his comrades in the Delmas Treason Trial. Nkoli was released two years after he was charged and was acquitted.
He discovered that he was HIV positive after leaving prison and wanted to help end the stigma that patients living with the virus faced.
Continuing with his activism against homophobia, he established the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (Glow), the first of its kind in the townships of Johannesburg.
In 1990, the group arranged the nation's first Pride march. “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, white, and women, gay, and straight,” said Nkoli.
Nkoli went on to be the first openly gay man to meet Nelson Mandela.
He is credited for being among those who helped bring an end to the sodomy law in 1996 and protection from discrimination in the Bill of Rights.
After living with HIV for 12 years, he succumbed to Aids on November 30, 1998. Despite being a larger-than-life figure thanks to his activism and advocacy, Nkoli was said to be quiet and soft-spoken.