Like many parents, Elizabeth Nkoli initially struggled to accept her son’s sexuality but ultimately came to accept him for who he was (Photo: Simon Nkoli Collective)
Elizabeth Nkoli, the mother of the late South African queer icon Simon Nkoli, has died. According to Daily Maverick, she passed away on 24 November at the age of 84.
Simon was an activist in the apartheid struggle and was among those tried in the infamous Delmas Trial. After he was released in 1988, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (Glow) which organised Africa’s first Gay and Lesbian Pride March in Johannesburg in 1990.
He played a significant role in opening up the ANC to accept the importance of LGBTIQ+ rights. As one of the first openly HIV-positive African gay men, Simon’s activism included starting an HIV support group for men.
When he came out as gay at the age of 18 to his mother, she took him to a priest, sangomas and a psychologist in an effort to change his sexuality. Although she never rejected him, Elizabeth eventually went on to accept her son for who he was.
Her life was fraught with tragedy. She lost her husband in the same year that Simon was arrested in 1985. She also saw Simon, whom she affectionately called Abuti (brother), succumb to AIDS in 1998 at the far-too-young age of 41.
Elizabeth, who had four children including Simon, went on to outlive three of them. She is survived by her daughter and Simon’s sister, Mamoipone.
Elizabeth was among those who played a part in workshopping the production that became Nkoli: The Vogue Opera, which recently opened at The Market Theatre on 17 November. Blending opera and vogueing-ball elements, the acclaimed show brings Nkoli’s life and legacy to the stage.
Sadly, Elizabeth never got to see Nkoli: The Vogue Opera’s debut as she was not well enough to attend the premiere. She passed away a few days later.
Elizabeth Nkoli and her son, Simon (Photo: Simon Nkoli Collective)
Simon Nkoli’s “institutional memory”
Mpho Buntse, one of the founders of the annual Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture, described Elizabeth’s loss as a deeply sad moment. “She was the institutional memory to Simon’s activism outside of what we knew,” he said.
“She was one of the people at the helm of providing us with key data and insights into Simon’s life. Her memory was super-sharp and she would tell us about Simon’s experiences that are not part of mainstream history.”
Buntse added that Elizabeth acknowledged “her journey of not understanding LGBTIQ issues, but with an urge to learn and with Simon as a point of reference, she really came to understand them.”
He conveyed that Elizabeth often spoke of her hopes that Simon would have been able to support and take care of her as she aged. Sadly, his untimely death left her in a poor financial condition, struggling to survive in a dilapidated home with an outside toilet.
And while South Africa and the world have celebrated and lauded her son, especially over the last decade, Buntse noted that Elizabeth grappled with being largely forgotten.
“We know that this is the end of not just a chapter for MaNkoli and the Nkoli family but also an end of a chapter for our efforts in seeking to gather more information about Simon from her, to further strengthen his legacy,” he said.
Elizabeth Nkoli was laid to rest on Saturday, 2 December in Sebokeng.