SEBOKENG, December 12, 1998 — A straight film-maker told me that when she pitched making a film about Simon Tseko Nkoli (a couple of months before he died) to film funders and administrators, none of them knew who Simon was. She described him to them as "the gay Mandela". Well, Simon certainly wasn't our Mother Theresa, and the phraseology of that sales pitch is hettie. But I support that parallel for three reasons.
Simon Nkoli unified the black and white gay communities, ending faggot apartheid, by causing the dissolution of GASA and creating GLOW leading to the NCGLE.
Simon Nkoli formed the first black gay movement in South Africa - the first organisation to include black lesbians.
And Simon's links with the ANC after his four years of imprisonment and subsequent acquittal, were hugely instrumental in the entrenchment of our gay rights in the constitution.
So, in no small way, Simon liberated, unified and legitimised the gay movement in South Africa. It is in part thanks to him that South Africa is not as fucked up as Zimbabwe.
Simon also initiated and led the first South African Pride march in Johannesburg in 1990. Without Simon, I believe today there would be two separate Gay pride marches - and going in different directions.
And at a time when we could all see no further than our mental and physical borders, Simon made links with the international gay world outside South Africa from his prison cell.
Simon died on the eve of World AIDS Day and his memorial was held at St. Mary's Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg on Friday 4th December at 5pm.
It was a rally with heart and dignity and people of all colours and types struggled through the wall-to-wall Kombi taxis and bristling pavements to be there. The beautiful huge cathedral, in the middle of the liveliest part of the city – at the busiest time of day – was the perfect place for a memorial to a dead gay activist and anti-apartheid soldier.
The only vaguely good thing about the AIDS holocaust is that a girl can get by with one good black dress. I usually feel perfect to sing hymns in lipstick and toyi-toyi in stilettos. But I took off my twelve-inch heels at Simon's memorial because I couldn't be the tallest person there - so many other people had real claims to standing taller than me . I felt awed and at home and very proud to be part of a community which was acknowledging its lost friend and leader in its own gay way. Between the shock and the sadness was beautiful conviction.
Roderick Sharp's reading of Simon's poem to him was fragile and moving, and Simon's repeated plea for understanding of "my African lifestyle" resonated for me after the memorial, through the week and into the funeral.
I left Simon's memorial early to race to a shoot with the tv program Options, from which I got fired within half an hour for my queer flagrance. I felt fuckall for losing out on that straight-culture crap, but I felt I had really missed part of an important piece of gay history. My lesson was karmic with a capital C for conceit.
I kept telling myself that I shouldn't be disappointed if, in trying to do everything at once, it all gets scrambled and jumbled. I kept telling myself I had done my best. But I went to sleep that night, after lighting a candle for Simon in the church, feeling like a heel – a five foot eight inch heel.
I have sometimes caused ruckus in the gay community by exploring my own brand of queer activism. I have been rebuked by our community leaders, liberals and even radicals. My famously unpopular carrying of the banner "GIVE US YOUR CHILDREN - WHAT WE CAN'T FUCK WE EAT" on the '96 Pride parade was squarely condemned.
A leading legal luminary told me (in appropriately neutral terms) that the banner saga "created endless discourse". Simon told me the banner created endless work for him as he was obliged to deal with many many irate phone calls from the gay community.
But Simon never rebuked me or passed judgement on my actions, unlike the rest of the finger pointing moralists. Simon really practiced what he wrote in Defiant Desire: "this country will never protect the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens unless we stand up and fight – even when it makes us unpopular with our own comrades." For that I have always respected and admired Simon. He did look at me a bit strangely when I attended his and Rod's 90th birthday — they added their years forty plus fifty. I was wearing bondage drag with my white cock bound and exposed with a Jewish Star of David glued on the end of it.
Simon's funeral was on Saturday 10th and the transport left at 7.15am from Champions. I was the only white fag on board the full bus. Remarking on this, the fabulous dyke next to me told me not to feel lonely because she, Portia, is here and we are together and everything is then allright. Camp consoling and my first hint of the fag ubuntu the day would be full of.
The hour long journey to Sebokeng was filled with singing and dancing in the lurching bus. The marvellous moffie choir was on board and I realise that the energetic level of celebration was unusual when even the residents of Sebokeng stared in amazement. Most of the umlungu (who had fright white faces just to be in town at the memorial) were absent in Sebokeng when we arrived at the Mphatlalatsane Community Hall, late.
While the speeches took place, there was a continual changing of the guard holding up the various banners fronting the hall. The GLOW banner, the Coalition banner, the Gay Flag, Madiba's face on the national flag, the Orlando Pirates Soccer Team flag (once a Pirate always a Pirate), the burial society banner, and Simon's coffin draped in the Rainbow Flag and flowers, filled the gay landscape.
It really felt like something; the presence of videographers acknowledging the historical significance of the day, the impassioned speakers, the foreign visitors and ANC dignitaries, the church leaders, and hundreds and hundreds of members of both the gay community and the Sebokeng community. It was an amazing and powerful event, and the hall kept slowly filling.
The line-up of speakers was appropriately long, varied and full-hearted. Peter Mohlahledi "my tears are flowing like the Vaal river" who was with Simon at the end (together with the other Peter and Roderick) told us that Simon died peacefully and with a smiling face. His tribute to "Mr Everything" was deeply pained and honest.
Bev Ditsie's wonderful mother "I thought Simon and Beverley would get married even though I knew one was a lesbian and one was gay" made potent contact with the crowd, adapting the Orlando Pirates slogan into "once a gay always a gay, once a lesbian always a lesbian, once a comrade always a comrade" in honour of "Simon who was a king."
And as the tributes continued, the Hall kept filling up. Enea Motaung from the Township AIDS Project (founded by Simon) criticized the Gauteng Provincial government for three times failing to support Simon's initiative for supporting (not necessarily gay) black men's health issues.
HIV+ Peter Busse told us how, exhausted, he would cry on Simon's shoulder and would be generously tended to though Simon was in the self same position. And the spunky and eloquent Prudence Mabele appealed for "love and support because vaccine trials come and go". The message was clear: No cowards, no monsters, but people "fighting, fighting for our lives".
Phumi Mtetwa, co-recipient of the Stonewall Award with Simon, exhorted the crowd to be visible and non-separatist. - "our duty". Phumi said Simon's last wish was for the success of the 1999 ILGA Conference, which upon Simon's instigation, is taking place in South Africa. "His struggle is over and ours has just begun".
ANC National Chairman, Patrick Terror Lekota, Premier of the North West Province, Popo Molefe, and Gcina Malinde (Simon's mates from the Delmas Treason Trial) also paid impassioned tribute to Simon, and then there was a fiery sermon with much pointing at the coffin. Alienated by my inability to understand much of the language of the proceedings – I realised how arrogant and divisive it is for Whites to still speak only English and resolved, in part as a tribute to Simon, to move outside of that.
And then there was the largest procession of vehicles to the Sebokeng cemetery - as the proud and sad community carried a fallen leader to his grave, a small wedding group passed in the opposite direction; ironic and depressing. Zone after zone, from Sebokeng past Beverley Hills to Evaton, people stared at the slow and meaningful cavalcade.
"It is better if many people come, because then there can be no whispering" said Lydia, who I'd just met.
There were many funerals in progress at the hot and dusty cemetery as the GLOW and NCLGE soldiers carried Simon Nkoli to his last resting place. Banners flying, singing and toyi-toying, all of pressed together in that beautiful African physical proximity where the closeness of my body doesn't scare yours, the angelic voices, the rhythm, the people filling the ground into the grave with passion, not ceremony, Nkosi Sikelela and clenched fists…. And then the crowd dispersing and the silent mound loaded with flowers in the bright sunlight - no mystery, no illusions, no pretending – everything out in the open; Simon's trademark.
Before we went back to the Nkoli house in Zone 14, Roderick recounted with horror to me how he was expected to slaughter the meat we would be eating – Did he? — "no, I couldn't." I can't imagine gentle Roderick killing anything and I thought how Simon must be giggling to see Rod so in the midst of "my African lifestyle".
There must have been 600 people at the house and each with a plate of meat and rice and vegetables and cake and a concern for each other. Helping with the food were delightful fags with a touch of lipstick or heels, and lining up or sitting about were priests and queens and dykes (in suits) and men and women young or old and gay and straight - a privileged experience to feel part of this community, this family.
On the way into Sebokeng I felt white and guilty and grubby in a spoiled kind of way, passing row after row of inhuman hostels. And I thought of the victimisation I had experienced as a queer and a Jew… and how much it hurt. And I thought of Simon and the way he bore so many crosses, being gay, being black in the old damning South Africa and HIV+ in the new uncaring one.
After Simon's funeral, on the way out, I felt blameless, included, un-judged. So much more it felt like we all belong together; gay, lesbian, and transgendered, HIV+ or not, black and white, camp, butch, young and old – We are Simon's people, Comrades fighting for our own and each other's lives. –©Steven Cohen
Simon Tseko Nkoli: 26 November 1957 - 30 November 1998
Zackie Achmat: The long walk to civil disobedience
Steven Cohen: queer apartheid at Simon Tseko Nkoli's funeral
Leoness von Cleeff's final curtain call
Shaun de Waal finds out Who is Judge Edwin Cameron