Hamba kahle (farewell) Simon Nkoli

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Hamba kahle (farewell) Simon Nkoli

By Ken Davis

On November 30, Simon Tseko Nkoli, one of Africa's most prominent gay and AIDS activists, died in hospital in Johannesburg. His death was front-page news, among the feature stories on World AIDS Day, and a deep shock to many in South Africa and around the world.

Born on November 26, 1957, in Soweto, Nkoli grew up in Bophelong township, near Sebokeng. After the 1976 Soweto youth uprising, he became an activist against apartheid. He was a founder of the Vaal Civic Association, and regional secretary of the Congress of SA Students in 1981.

Nkoli was arrested in 1984. He faced the death penalty with 21 other political leaders in the Delmas treason trial. The activists were accused of furthering the aims of the banned African National Congress and South African Communist Party.

Before his arrest, Nkoli was open about his homosexuality. By courageously standing up for gay rights while a prisoner, he helped change the attitude of the ANC. He was acquitted and released from prison after four years, in late 1987.

Nkoli founded the mainly black Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) in April 1988. In 1990, Nkoli helped organise the first annual Pride march in Johannesburg. The most recent march, in September, attracted 15,000 participants.

He was a key activist, educator and counsellor in Soweto's Township AIDS Project from its establishment in 1990.

After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, Nkoli was one of the first gay activists to meet with President Nelson Mandela. In 1996, after becoming one of the first publicly HIV-positive African gay men, he initiated the Positive African Men peer support group.

A leading personality in the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, he campaigned to retain the inclusion of sexual orientation in the charter of fundamental freedoms in the new South African constitution, and the May 1998 repeal of the sodomy laws.

Nkoli visited Sydney twice, speaking at meetings sponsored by Gay Solidarity and Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby.

In the months before his death, he was concerned with the anti-homosexual campaigns in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana and Zambia. Nkoli was also threatening to begin a hunger strike in the Department of Health offices to protest its refusal to make treatments for HIV more available.

Two memorial services were held, one at dusk on December 4 in the Anglican Cathedral of St Mary in central Johannesburg, and another on December 9 in Sebokeng. The cathedral was draped with the new flag of South Africa, the banner of GLOW, the rainbow flag, and the flag of Soweto's Orlando Pirates soccer team.

Terror Lekota, now national chair of the ANC and fellow Delmas defendant, said that despite initial hostility, "All of us acknowledge that Simon's coming out was an important learning experience ... How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, should now be discriminated against?"

Nkoli's funeral in Sebokeng on December 12 was attended by more than 1000 people. As a mark of their understanding of Simon's relationship, the family had asked Rod, his lover, to kill the ox as part of the funeral ritual.

Simon Nkoli's passing is an immense blow to the more that three million people with HIV in South Africa, and to the struggle for gay and lesbian freedom across southern Africa. As the official statement by the ANC concluded: "We should pay tribute to him for his courageous fight for people's rights by continuing his important battle to support and protect those living with HIV/AIDS."

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