One of the events that I remember most clearly and most fondly from my own time on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy is not one of the large rallies, or one of the daring direct actions, it is one of the relatively small regular Friday evening rallies. On Friday 13 July 1989, Simon Nkoli spoke on the Non-Stop Picket – a victory rally. Simon, as a supporter of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was one of the defendants in the Delmas Treason Trial in South Africa resulting from events in the Vaal township of Sebokeng in September 1984. He was acquitted with ten of the other defendants in November 1988.
Simon Nkoli had a background in radical student politics, being Transvaal Regional Secretary of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) in the early 1980s. He was also a radical gay activist. Combining these two strands of his activism was frequently fraught – by his own admission, his sexuality nearly cost him his position within COSAS; and, at first, several of his co-defendants in the Delmas trial resisted being tried alongside him. Following his release from detention in November 1988, Simon Nkoli played a key role in the formation of the non-racial activist group the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW). He came to London in July 1989 en route to Vienna where he was to represent GLOW at the conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Throughout their detention and trial, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group campaigned for the release of the Delmas Treason Trial defendants. This trial was unusual in that the apartheid state had chosen to try together ANC-supporting members of the UDF alongside members of the black consciousness organisation AZAPO. This was clearly a deliberate attempt to sow disunity amongst the defendants and weaken their defence. That strategy failed. The activists from both organisations refused to be divided in this way and stood together.
The trial also provided a key opportunity for City Group to demonstrate its ‘non-sectarian’ approach to providing solidarity with all anti-apartheid tendencies in South Africa. In particular, given Simon Nkoli’s prominence amongst the defendants (alongside such well-known figures as ‘Terror’ Lekota and Popo Molefe), City Group’s Lesbian and Gay Subgroup played a key role in leading this solidarity campaign. For some of that time, I was City Group’s Lesbian and Gay Organiser. Peter Tatchell was a key intermediary in this campaign, corresponding with South African gay activists, securing publicity for the case in the British gay media, and encouraging wider support for Simon Nkoli. Simon later suggested that the level of support he received from outside South Africa was instrumental in changing the attitudes of those of his co-defendants who saw his open homosexuality as a liability to the group. In his chapter in Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron’s book Defiant Desire, Simon reflected that,
Perhaps what helped me most was that I received so many letters. Everyone was writing to me, from anti-apartheid organisations and gay organisations the world over. I got much support from the anti-apartheid movements in Britain and Holland – I think that in Europe, I was the focus of attention in the trial, especially because of my homosexuality. In December 1986, for example, I got more than 150 Christmas cards from gay individuals, organisations and friends. And so I would say to the others, “Look people won’t be against us. Look how much support I’m getting”. Over time attitudes did change. (from Gevisser and Cameron 1994: 255).
It wasn’t just amongst the Delmas defendants that attitudes changed. The prominence of people like Simon Nkoli and Ivan Toms, as visible gay men within the anti-apartheid struggle, is widely thought to have contributed to winning the argument for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the equality clause of the post-apartheid constitution. In fact, Simon Nkoli was a key campaigner for that legislation in the early 1990s. As Simon said in an interview with Capital Gay during his visit to London,
Until fairly recently, many otherwise progressive people were hostile or dismissive. That’s now changing following the publicity surrounding my gayness and that of Ivan Toms, the doctor and gay activist who refused to be drafted into the South African army. The change of attitudes has also been helped by the statement in support of lesbian and gay rights by one of the leaders of the African National Congress, Thabo Mbeki.As a result, many of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement now acknowledge that the struggle for lesbian and gay rights is part of the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa. (Capital Gay, 21 July 1989, page 15)
Following his release from jail, Simon Nkoli committed GLOW to continuing to support those of his co-defendants who were found guilty, both through political campaigning and through fundraising to provide material aid for them and their families. City Group’s Lesbian and Gay Subgroup continued to support them in this work and maintained regular correspondence with GLOW for several years.
The ‘victory’ rally for Simon Nkoli on the Non-Stop Picket was supported by OLGA (the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action) and the King’s Cross Women’s Centre, two organisations who had regularly attended rallies in support of him throughout his detention. Peter Tatchell accompanied Simon to the Picket and spoke at the rally. Simon was presented with a garland of flowers at the Picket and he, in turn, presented myself (on behalf of City Group) with a GLOW t-shirt, which (although it was always far too small for me to wear) I still have to this day. Simon spoke at length about the events that led to his arrest and the Delmas Treason Trial, about the priorities for the UDF in the struggle against apartheid, and shared his perspectives on linking lesbian and gay rights to the wider fight for democracy and justice in South Africa. He joined us in laying flowers on the gates of the embassy, and together we sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and other freedom songs. My memory is of a slight, handsome, fairly camp, swishy gay man who seemed incredibly empowered. The couple of hours we spent in each other’s company left a lasting impression.
The international campaign to support Simon Nkoli demonstrates the transformative power of small acts of solidarity. The rallies in support of Simon and the other Delmas defendants outside the South African Embassy in London (and elsewhere) helped generate publicity for their cause. That publicity, and the scores of letters sent to lesbian and gay activists by Peter Tatchell, City Group and others, generated further support for them. The hundred of letters and cards that Simon received whilst in detention not only boosted his morale but helped challenge the prejudices of his co-accused – precisely because they were sent to a gay man by lesbians and gay men around the world. By raising his profile as a gay anti-apartheid militant, the solidarity campaigns helped fuel the struggle for lesbian and gay rights in post-apartheid South Africa.
Simon Nkoli’s willingness to take risks and stand up to be counted continued after the end of apartheid. He became one of the first HIV-positive African men to publicly disclose his serostatus and initiated the Johannesburg-based support group Positive African Men. He died of AIDS in 1998. Perhaps one way to honour Simon’s legacy is now to mobilise solidarity with the South African LGBT activists who protested this week against the alarming rise of hate crimes against gender and sexual minorities across the country.