Simon Nkoli attending a rally celebrating his release from jail in London (Photographer: Gordon Rainsford)
Simon Nkoli was part of the generation of South African activists who came into the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1976 Soweto school students’ uprising. Simon was 15 at the time of the Soweto Uprising and was detained by the security police for three months as a result of his involvement in the protests. When the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was formed in 1979 to organise Black students in secondary schools and technical colleges, Simon became an active member. When he became the Regional Secretary for COSAS in the Transvaal region in 1981, some of his fellow activists questioned whether it was right for a gay man to hold that leadership position. But Simon stayed in his leadership role.
In 1983, Simon joined the (predominantly white) Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) and, through them, formed the ‘Saturday Group’ which was one of the first Black gay organisations in Africa. Until then, the few Black members of GASA had had to travel to white areas of Johannesburg to attend gay events. In contrast, the Saturday Group organised activities for its members in the black townships where they lived. This was an important attempt to make black LGBT people more visible within their own communities.
COSAS played a key role in forming the United Democratic Front (UDF) as a mass movement against apartheid in 1983. The UDF was an alliance of community groups, student groups and trade unions, all united in their opposition to apartheid. Simon quickly became active in the United Democratic Front. In 1984 he spoke at rallies in support of the rent boycotts in the townships. He was later arrested and charged with treason – one of the defendants in the Delmas Treason Trial alongside high profile activists such as Popo Molefe and Patrick Lekota. He refused to hide his sexuality or his history of gay activism during the trial (at first, to the discomfort of some of his co-defendants).
The Delmas Treason Trial was one of the largest and most significant trials of anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa during the 1980s. As a result, the 23 defendants in the trial received a lot of support and solidarity from the international anti-apartheid movement. Because Simon Nkoli stood trial as a proud Black gay man, many LGBT groups and individuals around the world became involved in anti-apartheid campaigning. In December 1986, while he was still in prison, Simon received over 150 Christmas cards from gay anti-apartheid campaigners in Britain and the Netherlands. This level of support helped persuade his co-accused that Simon was not putting them all at risk during the trial. However, Simon was also adamant that international support just for himself, making him a special cause due to his sexuality, was not helpful and could do more harm than good – he wanted the international gay community to stand in solidarity with all the defendants. He was eventually found not guilty in 1988, released from jail and returned to anti-apartheid and LGBT campaigning.