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SU to honour equal rights activist, Simon Nkoli
Author: Dumile Mlambo and JC Landman
Published: 22/11/2017

​​Stellenbosch University (SU) has ensured that the name of late anti-apartheid student leader, gay rights lobbyist, equal rights proponent and HIV/Aids activist, Simon Nkoli, becomes part of the present and future of the university.

This comes after management proudly announced its decision to rename one of its buildings at 39 Victoria Street after him as Huis Simon Nkoli House. The occasion of the unveiling of the new name will take place on World Aids Day (1 December 2017) – a day to commemorate those infected and affected by HIV/Aids. The festivities of this day will coincide with birthday celebrations of the Equality Unit (EqU) and Disability Unit (DU), marking their two and ten years of existence, respectively.

The proposal to rename 39 Victoria Street after Nkoli was first proposed by the EqU and supported by the DU, both within the Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) – the two share the house as office space. The CSCD is one of the centres in the Division of Student Affairs (DSA), which recognises that in order to achieve greater student success at SU, they need to be thoughtful and proactive in speaking to the needs of those often made vulnerable in society.

As an equality activist, the late Nkoli will be honoured for his steadfast quest for equal rights and fair treatment of all South Africans irrespective of one's race, political affiliation, HIV status or sexual orientation. He resolutely fought unfair discrimination in all its forms.

Simon Nkoli quoted in 1990, notably said: “I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man. So, when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions… All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice".

According to Mr. Jaco Greeff Brink, head of the EqU, having Nkoli's name on this house will echo the social justice foundation on which they (the EqU and DU) are founded, both historically and looking into the future.

“We couldn't think of any other name than his! Huis Simon Nkoli House is the ideal name for 39 Victoria Street as this embodies the collaboration of two units.  Mr Nkoli was a fighter for equality, against unfair discrimination and the rights for all marginal groups and this is exactly what the two units are advocating for," said Brink. He added that Nkoli's name, and what it stands for, has significant national and international stature and reverence.

Dr Marcia Lyner-Cleophas, head of the DU, also shared the same sentiments, saying that they are very excited about this new chapter. Disability as an area of focus that still needs much advocacy work to establish disability inclusion from a human rights perspective in society. She added that the move will increase the two units' imprint and service excellence to the staff and students at SU.

During consultation processes between March and July 2016, students applauded the proposal saying it is a step in the right direction to celebrate and honour those who have fought relentlessly for human rights. Mr Bongani Mapumulo, the current chairperson of the Dis-Maties had this to say about Nkoli: “His rights activism and clear stance on non-discrimination appeals to the issues faced by minorities that co-exist under the pressures of heteronormativity, HIV stigma and racialism. In addition, his driven activism intersects with the struggles still faced by groups that remain on the outskirts of mainstream society of political and economic participation including women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and homosexuals."

SU's strategic positioning is anchored in creating and sustaining an environment of inclusivity, transformation, innovation and diversity. The University has fully committed itself to promoting all fundamental rights and freedoms of every person on campus. It is furthermore committed to become a more diverse, inclusive and representative institution and is working hard to create student-friendly living and learning spaces as well as a congenial staff work environment. SU aims to create a more enabling environment inclusive to a diverse group of staff and students and celebrates Simon Nkoli's legacy, while looking forward to inspire and reflect back on the principles Simon Nkoli stood for.

Simon Nkoli, the road less travelled…

The 1957 Soweto-born, grew up on a farm in the Free State and his family later moved to Sebokeng. When he joined the mainly white Gay Association of South Africa in 1983, little did he know that he would later be the founder of the first black gay group in Africa called the Saturday Group.

During his activism, Nkoli spent a great deal of time giving talks at various rallies across the Vaal Region in support of rent-boycotts. In 1984 he was arrested and faced the death penalty for treason with twenty-one other political leaders in Delmas, collectively known as the Delmas 22.

As a co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), Nkoli, along with LGBT activist, Beverley Palesa Ditsie, was very instrumental in organising the first pride parade in South Africa in 1990.  His commitment to the cause saw him travel widely, receiving several human rights awards in Europe and North America including becoming a member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association Board, representing the African region.

Another one of his major achievements was a successful campaign for the inclusion of protection from discrimination in the Bill of Rights in the South African constitution and for the repeal of the sodomy law, which happened in May 1998, in his last months.

After becoming one of the first publicly HIV-positive African gay men, he initiated the Positive African Men group based in central Johannesburg. He lived with HIV for around 12 years, and had been seriously ill, on and off, for the last four years. He died of AIDS in 1998 in Johannesburg.

More about the Equality and Disability Units

The EqU, formerly known as the Institutional HIV Office, promotes collective action towards social justice and discourse regarding social asymmetries at SU. Its core mandate is to oversee the implementation of SU's policies on unfair discrimination, sexual harassment and HIV/Aids, educate students and staff around sexualities, gender non-violence, HIV/Aids and anti-discrimination and to provide comprehensive HIV and LGBTQI services.

The DU, formerly known as the Office for Students with Special Learning Needs (Disabilities) is responsible to facilitate support to students with disabilities on campus, by creating an awareness about issues pertinent to disabilities, in the academic, social and psychological sense. The unit is a starting point for coordinated support for students with disabilities, engaging with prospective students as needed.