The fight of his life

Heritage Month has long jostled up against gay Pride week, so it’s appropriate that this year Pride focuses on lesbian and gay heritage, in particular the legacy of Simon Nkoli and the work of Gala (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Archives, now Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action).

Now 10 years old, Gala is a repository of gay and lesbian memory—everything from organisational records to personal letters, memoirs and photographs. Nkoli’s letters to his then lover, Roy Shepherd, were one of the first donations to the archive.
Written while he was in jail as one of the accused in the marathon Delmas treason trial of 1985 to 1989, they comprise hundreds of pages, running over the three years of Nkoli’s incarceration. Karen Martin and I have produced Till the Time of Trial: The Prison Letters of Simon Nkoli, a 48-page booklet extracted from Nkoli’s vast correspondence to give a unique insight into this historical figure and to highlight the work of the archives.

The Delmas treason trial charged 22 people, including United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota and Popo Molefe, with high treason—attempting to overthrow the state by violence. Eventually all would be acquitted, but for the time they were in jail the threat of capital punishment hung over their heads.

For Nkoli, things were particularly complicated in that he was a gay man and in jail his sexuality became the subject of tense debate. Most of his co-trialists viewed his orientation with distaste and it was felt that the state could use his homosexuality to discredit the trialists and the UDF as a whole.

It seems bizarre, today, that this was a battle Nkoli had to fight against his comrades. But part of the reason South Africa now has the world’s most progressive legislation relating to sexual orientation is that Nkoli fought that battle—and won it. For him, being oppressed as a black man and being oppressed as a gay man were inseparable and eventually his co-trialists came to see that. The debates in prison, as Lekota has acknowledged, were a vital moment in the recognition of gay rights by the liberation movements.

The letters trace this battle tangentially; Nkoli is cagey about the crisis he was suffering. What is so appealing about the letters is the way they reveal the full complexity of Nkoli’s personality—and in his own quicksilver voice.

His relationship with Shepherd sustained him in those dark times. The letter-writing itself was a life-line and something to which he gave a great deal of time. He notes in one letter that Molefe upbraided him for spending so much time writing letters when he could have been working on matters before the court. Elsewhere he relates how the prison authorities complained that the trialists’ correspondence was too much for the prison censors to handle. “So honey, try to write short letters,” Nkoli wrote to Shepherd.

Nkoli’s writing has a highly distinctive and engaging voice. He worries about his handwriting, his English and his spelling. Martin and I, as editors of this popular edition of the letters, had to make some difficult decisions about which idio­syncrasies and “Simonisms” to keep and which to correct for ease of reading. He is fond of exclamations such as “Oh!”—as he would have been in speech. He likes putting his and Shepherd’s names, or when he writes “you and I”, into a cartouche that unites them in an oval of love. At times his words flow into an almost Joycean stream of consciousness.

Nkoli worries a lot about clothing. He requests specific items, complains about clothes that don’t fit, jokes about parading his new underpants before his co-trialists and daydreams about a sky-blue Carducci suit. In the Gala holdings we found the very pictures Nkoli asked Shepherd to send him in jail; they include shots of Nkoli posing proudly in a new outfit at Zoo Lake.

He writes about the books he read—especially the trashy romances of Danielle Steel. “The situation that I find myself in, somehow I feel sort of in the mood for something light and relaxing, a fairy story,” he writes. At another point he says: “By reading Danielle Steel I learn so much about how some people suffer because of love—but one also learns to be brave, and courage is dwelling in me”.

He also read The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig. These seem particularly appropriate to his situation. Kafka’s novel is about a man caught in the toils of an incomprehensible state machinery. Puig’s novel dramatises the confrontation, in an Argentine prison, between two men locked in the same cell: a political activist and a gay man jailed for sexual activities. At first they are antagonistic towards one another, but finally reach a rapprochement. It feels as though Nkoli went through a similar process within himself and in relation to his co-trialists and in his persona unites those two figures.

Above all, the letters display the inner life of a complex human being. Nkoli was a hero, but it is too easy to mythologise and simplify such figures. It would be a pity to lose the intimate textures of lives such as his. The letters give that back to us.

Till the Time of Trial: The Prison Letters of Simon Nkoli is published by Gala and will be launched, with a screening of Bev Ditse’s documentary Simon and I, at the Constitution Hill conference rooms at 1.30pm on Monday October 1. Call 011 717 4239 for more info

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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