Guest post: Archiving an Icon- GALA’s Simon Nkoli Collection by Linda Chernis


When writers and researchers include a paragraph, page or chapter on South Africa’s LGBTI history, it is usually the Simon Nkoli story that is told. The Simon Nkoli Collection has become GALA’s default ‘flagship collection’ and it seems that this can raise some interesting questions. I thought it would be useful to try and understand why this collection holds such interest, and what we can learn from this, and also to ask whether there are any problems associated with a single collection receiving such intensive attention, in contributing to a single (and possibly over-used) narrative to tell the story of a marginalised group.

Simon Tseko Nkoli was an anti-apartheid activist, convicted of treason in the 1980s for his political activism. Following his acquittal and release from prison in 1988, Nkoli founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, known as GLOW. GLOW organised South Africa’s first pride march in 1990 in Johannesburg. And as part of the National Coalition for Gay & Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) Nkoli helped in the campaign to retain the sexual equality clause in South Africa’s new constitution.   Hi dual role as political and gay rights activist played a pivotal role in bringing gay rights onto the agenda of the African National Congress. Nkoli also helped establish Soweto’s Township AIDS Project in 1990, and after becoming one of the first publicly HIV-positive African gay men, he initiated the Positive African Men group based in central Johannesburg.   He died in Johannesburg in November 1998 of AIDS-related causes.

Reasons why the collection is so popular are fairly plain. Nkoli was a charismatic figure, an anti-apartheid activist as well as a gay-rights and AIDS activist. And he died young – in the hey-day of post-apartheid South African transformation, activism and international good-will. And as the above brief narrative only skims, he played an incredibly important role in the fight for gay and political rights in the 1980s and 1990s. In the words of his Delmas Trial lawyer (now a judge) Caroline Heaton Nicolls:   “My view is that Si did more for gay rights in South Africa than any other individual. He made the struggle for gay people part of the broader struggle in South Africa, and I think only he could have done that.”

With an archive such as GALA’s, with a history such as South Africa’s, much of the archival record is dominated by white, gay males. Although this is probably true of other queer archives and history, in South Africa this bias is much more evident and demographically problematic. Early queer rights groups were mostly white, and better documented for obvious social, political and economic reasons.  To combat this imbalance, GALA has actively sought out the stories of black activists, as well as the everyday lives and experiences of queer black South Africans, mostly through a number of oral history projects.

Simon Nkoli and GLOW are among the exception. Nkoli’s is one of the few personal collections in the archive representing a black, gay activist. He is the exception in that we have a ‘traditional’ archival record for researchers to access, appealing to academic researchers and theorists (mostly from abroad).

It is for all these reasons, among others, that researchers and historians zero in on his remarkable story.

Nkoli’s role and story is frequently the one that dominates in the telling of South Africa’s history of LGBTI rights. With no wish to diminish Nkoli’s remarkable life and influence, his story is perhaps sometimes told at the expense of others, particularly female activists from the same time period.  It is perhaps worth noting that there are large amounts of archival records and collections at GALA that are not being accessed, or accessed only through the very narrow lens of searching for links to Nkoli.

If we use the Nkoli collection as a lens into the archive, what does it tell us?

  • For starters there is little interest in queer history prior to the 1980s
  • Secondly, the roles of female activists are not often looked at
  • Thirdly, almost half of those that access the GALA archives are foreign academics, mostly young
  • It also seems that people like to have an iconic figure, to borrow Imma’s title[1], A Queer Mandela
  • And, tying in the LGBTI struggle in South Africa with the anti-apartheid fight is of particular interest, particularly for international researchers.
  • Researching LGBTI in terms of race is important to researchers – queer history in South Africa is still highly racialized and gendered
  • And lastly, there is a lot of material in the archive not being accessed

Simon Nkoli played a tremendously important role in various struggles in South Africa. One of the reasons his story and image are so often used, why his life continues to be researched, written about and remembered, is that he DID play such a major role and cut across so many different spaces and causes. Though it is hoped that in the future researchers may look beneath this deserving poster child of the LGBTI rights campaign in South Africa, to the rich depth of activists and organizations that make up GALA’s almost 200 collections.

It is also clear that GALA needs to do more work to showcase and highlight the diverse and large amount of material we have available.

[1] GALA researcher, Z’etoile Imma, is writing a book looking at the increasingly iconic status of Nkoli, titled: “Our Queer Mandela: Simon Nkoli, the Archive, and the Uses of an African Queer Icon”.

Linda Chernis

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