Simon Nkoli, GLOW, and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle

This post is part of our forum on “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.” 

Gay pride parade event in Cape Town, South Africa (Shutterstock/Lois GoBe)

At first, there was rain. It was an October day in Johannesburg in 1990. Hundreds had gathered in the Gauteng spring weather, bearing placards. Some in the group wore brown paper bags over their heads in fear of being outed. By the end of the parade—this was South Africa’s first pride march—the rain had cleared, and Simon Nkoli spoke “I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggle. They will be all one struggle.” By the time the rain passed, those wearing paper bags took them off, emboldened by the political energy that abounded. Just as Nkoli made clear through his assertion of his intertwined Black and gay identities, the pride march—and the experiences of Black queer communities—were deeply embedded in the anti-apartheid movement.

Johannesburg’s first pride march was organized by the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), a group founded in 1988 by Simon Nkoli, Beverly Ditsie, Linda Ngcobo and others. With Beverly Ditsie and Nkoli co-chairs, GLOW was unique among South African LGBT groups in that it was multiracial and geared towards the Black community. It functioned as a holistic, community-based organization. GLOW came out of a desire to create a group that privileged Black folk in a way that the Gay Association of South Africa, a majority-white organization, did not. And while it was not explicitly aligned with the African National Congress (ANC), GLOW took a deep interest in ensuring queer groups did not get sidelined in the new South Africa.

Our thinking on global anti-apartheid movements has been shaped by international efforts to boycott and sanction South Africa, whether through sports, culture, or economics. Much work has revealed the deep Black diasporic solidarity that made bringing down apartheid an imperative for Black communities globally. But the ways that queer South Africans fought for a free South Africa is a lesser-explored story of anti-apartheid struggle. Understanding the work of groups like GLOW and the ways they were embedded in wider, global networks of queer solidarity opens up new avenues of conceiving of what anti-apartheid work looked like in the 1980s and 1990s. It extends the narrative to include queer activists and historical actors into the fold.

Nkoli lived and molded his activist work along the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. Born in Soweto in 1957 to former tenant farmers, Nkoli grew up in the age of “high apartheid”. He organized students during the Soweto protests of 1976. As a founder of the Vaal Civic Organization, Nkoli protested rent hikes in the Vaal townships as part of a popular movement across the area. In September of 1984, Nkoli and several others were arrested after attending a funeral for a friend killed in the rent boycott protests. Nkoli became accused number thirteen in the Delmas Treason Trial, which became the longest running trial in apartheid South Africa. While in prison during trial, he came out as gay to his fellow trialists in an effort to protect another gay man (not part of the trial) from harassment. As a result, writers from across the world wrote him letters of support and his case received attention from groups like Amnesty International. Nkoli’s narrative and struggle were leveraged by queer and anti-apartheid groups from London to Toronto to Oakland. Letters written by Nkoli from that time period and afterwards are held in the Gay and Lesbian Archive in Johannesburg. Nkoli’s letters to loved ones, his lawyers, and even strangers are deeply emotive. They mention everything from his favorite novels and music, to his love of running, to his desire for particular clothes. I argue that in some of Nkoli’s letters, Nkoli also resisted state homophobia by imagining specifically queer and transnational futures.

Nkoli’s work to publicly and proudly insist on two key aspects of his identity—race and sexuality—mirrored how his support was taken up globally. The work of Nkoli and GLOW reverberated globally. Similar to GLOW, LGBT groups and publications in the diaspora linked struggles against apartheid and struggles for gay rights. The Los Angeles-based gay periodical that focused on Black culture, BLK, published news about Nkoli’s work with the Township AIDS Project. The Bay Area-based lesbian journal Aché also formed a relationship with GLOW, receiving letters and publications from the group. Furthermore, GLOW members and founders took part in international conferences. Even though she received pushback from members of the group for speaking on women’s issues in what was seen as “only” a gay and queer space, Beverly Ditsie, a GLOW founder, was invited to the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women, where she became the first out lesbian to address the body. Through publications like the GLOWletter, global conferences, and epistolary exchanges, GLOW became an important venue for transnational links of global solidarity.

In the early 90s, many of the activists involved in GLOW became part of efforts to push the ANC to consider gay rights as it moved towards a democratic South Africa. Activists organized through the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) for a “gay rights clause” to be included in the constitution’s bill of rights. In 1996, South Africa’s constitution became the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexuality. A few years later, NCGLE also won a case to declare sodomy laws unconstitutional based on discrimination against gay groups.

As a historian, biographical methods help me work across different scales of power and representation. By writing on Nkoli, I was able to explore the transnational queer advocacy networks that he participated in alongside the ways his political work inflected his personal life. Working in this vein also helps me frame Nkoli not as a static “hero” figure, but rather allows me to find a way to humanize him, as Lethogonolo Mokgoroane has insisted on. But the limitation of a biographical method is the potential to exclude key figures. GLOW, importantly, was not the first queer multiracial group in South Africa. In 1987, Alfred Machela founded the short-lived Rand Gay Organization to build and support gay communities in the Gauteng region. And the narrativizing of Nkoli as central to this story elides key figures like MaThoko (Thokozile Khumalo), who opened up her Soweto home to young queer people, along with the Black lesbians like Beverly Ditsie who built GLOW, marched in the first pride, and fought for lesbian visibility in an often sexist organization. Even so, a focus on Nkoli’s narrative makes clear the ways queer histories have been elided from wider resistance struggles, especially if we understand Nkoli as just one historical actor and activist among a range of queer liberation movement figures.

Considering Nkoli’s narrative goes beyond merely adding a queer perspective to more normative histories. The lesson is deeper. The early 90s and the shaping of a future democratic South Africa were a moment of possibility for communities living at many intersections of identity. A full understanding of the anti-apartheid struggle necessitates thinking through the ways the struggle was shaped by gender and sexuality.

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Yasmina Martin

Yasmina Martin is a PhD candidate in African history at Yale University. Her dissertation, which examines histories of South African exiles in post-colonial Tanzania, argues that the futures of postcolonial Tanzanians and exiled southern Africans were entangled during the crucial years of Tanzanian nation-building and development. Her current project expands​ current understandings of decolonization, Pan-Africanism as foreign policy, and liberation movements in exile. Yasmina also has keen interests in queer African histories, and her previous research in Simon Nkoli was published in the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2020. Her research has been supported by Fulbright-IIE, the American Historical Association, and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

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