“If you are Black and gay in South Africa, then it really is all the same closet…inside is darkness and oppression. Outside is freedom.” -Simon Tseko Nkoli (1990)
A Simon Nkoli Introductory:
Born Tseko Nkoli, in 1957 in Soweto, South Africa, Simon was quick to realize how freedom of expression in his country didn’t constitute as a right, but a privilege. Unsatisfied with this notion of inequality, he decided to do something about it.
Simon (Tseko) Nkoli is a name you might not recognize, and, although I don’t blame you, I hope that through the completion of this project, Tseko Nkoli will become a name you won’t forget.
You see, when Simon couldn’t find a safe space for LGBTQ+ members in his community, he matter of factly founded his own group (The Saturday Group—the first all-black gay group in South Africa). This act seemed only to foreshadow his future endeavors, as he later cofounded the GLOW (Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand), the first official multi-racial gay rights organization in South Africa in 1988. In 1990, Nkoli helped organize the first Pride March Africa had ever seen, taking place in Johannesburg, some 800 people came, though many had paper bags over their heads.
But not everything was smooth sailing. Throughout his lifetime, Simon encountered many setbacks. Growing up during apartheid (Afrikaans word for ‘apartness’, a time period in South Africa in which radical racial segregation was imposed), Simon, having skin a tad too dark for the ignorant white men in power, was always at risk of arrest. During his career, Simon was confined on numerous occasions. Once, he faced the death penalty for ‘treason’, and was acquitted only after four years in prison.
Now, arguably his most impressive feat was the work he did alongside Nelson Mandela. I say this because in 1996, South Africa became the first nation to include sexual orientation protection in its constitution.
Despite his breathtaking accomplishments, he was still a human being, one with passions of his own. Coincidentally, he—like I—loved reading, specifically romance novels. I was quite delighted when I found out that one of my idols was just as hopeless of a romantic as I am. Sadly, there are some crucial components that we do not share, such as the fact that I don’t have a street named after me, no, that’s him. The only “Mel Street” I could find was an American country singer that died in 1978.
Anyways, fortunately (for my self-esteem) we share other similarities, such as our birth nation. We were both raised in South Africa, and thanks to him (and some other important people) I didn’t have to grow up in a place of black and white. I was free to explore my world without worrying about insignificant things such as the worth one’s skin color bestows.
Learning about Simon has made me realize that my own goals in TALONS are attainable. He has shown me the benefits of persistence. He didn’t much care for any external factors preventing the completion of his goals. He had an idea of what change he should bring, and didn’t stop until that change had come about.
Of course, like anyone, he had his flaws. One of his major weaknesses was ironically identical to his strength. I say this because although he showed great perseverance throughout his career and life, his stubbornness got him arrested on numerous occasion (unfairly so, but arrested nonetheless). Then again, I’m sure he didn’t care about incrementation, for in his mind, change was about—and he was right.
When he came out as HIV positive, South Africa, like many countries at the time, held severe stigma around the topic. But, the simple act of announcing his health status perhaps saved South Africa from decades of further ignorance and stigmatization. Without him, HIV/AIDS support groups might not even exist in South Africa today. His journey of destigmatising HIV made him an honourable member of his country, so in 1999, Johannesburg dedicated their pride parade to Simon Tseko Nkoli, who had died not a year before the celebration. Among the participants, his lover of five years, Roy Shepherd.
Nkoli had died of AIDS, but his legacy still lives. If I can help—even if only a little—with continuing his footprints in this relentless sand of closed minds, I will try to do so.
You see, although the surface may look like a simple school project, behind the words is a heart (a hopeless one at that) that loves her country to the moon and back.