Simon Nkoli’s fight for queer rights in South Africa is finally being celebrated – 24 years after he died

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01/03/2022

Born in 1957, Simon Tseko Nkoli had just turned 41 when he died, in 1998, of an AIDS-related illness. In his short life, the South African activist fought against different forms of oppression. He fought for those downtrodden because of their “race”. He stood up for those ostracised because of their HIV status. His greatest fight, though, was for those persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Nkoli was born and raised in Soweto, the largest black township in a South Africa ruled by a white minority who enforced apartheid, a system of racial segregation. His activism began in 1980 when he joined the Congress of South African Students, a youth organisation fighting apartheid. In 1984, Nkoli was arrested and became a trialist in the Delmas Treason Trial. During his imprisonment, he came out as gay to his comrades. This caused much debate in the liberation movement but it was important in changing the attitude of the African National Congress (ANC) to gay rights. The ANC would go on to govern the country with the advent of democracy in 1994, helping shape the first constitution in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nkoli was responsible for setting up diverse projects including organising the first Pride march in Africa.

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