Honouring Simon Nkoli through new exhibition

Jaco Greeff Brink, Dr Beverley Palesa Ditsie, retired justice Edwin Cameron, Dr Marie-Anne Staebler and Mpho Bunste.

The Stellenbosch University (SU) Museum, along with the Simon Nkoli Collective (SNC) and the Centre for Student Counselling and Development’s Equality Unit, are hosting a five-month exhibition in honour of the late apartheid struggle icon, Simon Nkoli.

The exhibition, called Black Queer Visibility: Finding Simon, emerged out of continuous conversations on the celebration of Mr Nkoli’s political life and aims to compel people to reflect on the questions of solidarity in deepening inequalities towards social justice.

Mr Nkoli was one of the first black male anti-apartheid activists to reveal that he was gay and HIV positive, and was at the forefront in the fight for gay and lesbian rights during apartheid.

In 2017, SU named the building that houses the Equality Unit after the late equality activist.

The exhibition, which officially opened on Thursday September 12, comprises a series of photographs, awards and a video installation. Mr Nkoli’s awards are evidence of his political contribution and how he has been celebrated internationally after his arrest in 1984. At the time, he faced the death penalty for treason with 21 other political leaders in Delmas and were collectively known as the Delmas 22.

Additional photos were sourced from The Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) and used to locate Mr Nkoli at different points of his life in the township, in marches and campaigns.

According to Mpho Bunste, a representative from the SNC, the group was established six year ago by a group of University of Johannesburg students with the aim of educating and creating dialogues celebrating queer heroes in the higher education sector.

“What started out as a simple dialogue to prompt queer visibility in institutions of higher learning escalated to be a passion driven project. The Simon Nkoli Collective has grown beyond being a memorial lecture, but is a one-stop forum to remember the journey of queer organising on the continent and positioning queer issues in the mainstream agenda.”

Among the guest speakers at the opening was Justice Edwin Cameron and Dr Beverley Palesa Ditsie. During both their speeches, they reminded those in attendance of the important work and legacy of Mr Nkoli.

According to Justice Cameron, if it wasn’t for activists such as Mr Nkoli who fought against apartheid, South Africa would not have the freedoms of democracy today. “Every element of Simon’s life remains important in our country today. Simon’s life is a beacon for the whole of our continent. His life combined lessons for us in South Africa. The one lesson was of courage; the second was the lesson of integrity and truthfulness about himself and the third was the reach of his activism. His activism crossed the boundaries of our humanity,” said Justice Cameron.

As a co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), Dr Ditsie, along with Mr Nkoli, was very instrumental in organising the first pride parade in South Africa in 1990. During her speech, she reflected on her relationship and friendship with Mr Nkoli and said that she hoped that SU would use the exhibition as a step in the right direction in the fight for equality and transformation.

She also implored young people and students to continue Mr Nkoli’s work and help educate their peers and the next generation about the struggles they face and hope to overcome.

“Simon was that through and through activist. He was an old school activist who would never miss an opportunity to teach. It’s commendable that this exhibition is here at Stellenbosch, my hope is that students and people from various faculties walk into the exhibition and feel Simon’s spirit by engaging with his work and legacy as a freedom fighter,” said Dr Ditsie.

For more information contact Ricky Brecht at 021 808 3660 or rickyb@sun.ac.za