Elizabeth Nkoli and her son, Simon Nkoli (Photo: Simon Nkoli Collective)
Elizabeth Nkoli is depicted in the biographical theatre piece Nkoli: The Vogue Opera as a mother who struggled to understand and accept her son’s queerness, but later embraced him and the life he lived.
Elizabeth died on 24 November 2023 at the age of 84; the mother of celebrated LGBTQ+ and HIV activist Simon Nkoli. Like many of her peers, she was married young, had four children and had hopes and dreams for all of them, perhaps chief among them, that she would see them grow old and in her final days, they would all surround her.
Sadly, the wife of Elias Nkoli would not only see her husband, but three of her four children leave this earth before her. Despite this, she is often described, by those who encountered her, as a woman of an optimistic disposition.
The late Simon Nkoli is a global queer icon. His name is etched in history as one of the founders of Johannesburg Pride – the first Pride event on the continent. He was also part of the anti-apartheid rights movement in the United Democratic Front (UDF), and later, the ANC.
He founded, was part of and led several movements for both racial equality and the inclusion of sexual minorities. He stood boldly in the mid-90s as an HIV activist, using his own life as a mirror for the destigmatisation of people living with HIV.
He did this and more as Elizabeth Nkoli’s first-born son. Many may not know the kind of home he was from or about his mother, who stood by him as he traversed the various spaces he occupied as an activist. Despite not much being widely shared about her, she deserves to have us say her name.
It is recorded that Simon came out to his mother and stepfather when asked about dating during his eighteenth birthday celebrations. His mother battled with this disclosure to the point of seeking several interventions, with the support of Simon’s stepfather.
Researcher and co-founder of the Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture, Nomancotsho Pakade has spent a considerable amount of time looking into Simon’s life and has relied on his mother as a primary source, particularly the intricacies of Simon Nkoli the son, brother and member of the Nkoli family.
She laments that much of what is often highlighted about MaNkoli, as she affectionately refers to her, is her difficulty with accepting her son’s sexual orientation and politics at the time. But, she notes, MaNkoli never stopped loving Simon.
Simon himself reflected on his mother’s reaction to his sexual orientation. In her work, Pakade quotes him: “She didn’t want to reject me. She wanted to rectify things… But in the end, I was lucky she was concerned. I’ve counselled lots of people whose parents weren’t as concerned as she, whose parents just threw their clothes into the street or turfed them out of the house. My mother, at least, tried to help me, in the ways that she knew how.”
This side of a loving and concerned mother is often not spoken of, as she is frozen in time as the mother who tried to “convert” her son because she could not accept that he was gay. Despite these images of her in the broader public, Pakade further notes that Elizabeth was a mother who loved her son, in all his aspects – the socialite, the activist and the gay man, evidenced by family albums Elizabeth had shared that are filled with images of Simon with his boyfriends, comrades and trips abroad.
Elizabeth also spoke fondly of Simon’s playfulness and showed Pakade undated images of a naked Simon at the beach and him dressed in Zulu women’s traditional regalia. Not only did she come to accept his sexual orientation but his political activism as well, which, at the time, she justifiably saw as endangering his life (and by extension, their family’s too).
It is the desire of multiple activists, memorialists and other queer people to have Simon’s legacy remembered alongside that of his mother; that she ought to be remembered, just as he is, in her fullness.
One such person is writer and author Welcome Mandla Lishivha, who served as one of the researchers for Nkoli: The Vogue Opera. He reflected that it is often overlooked how difficult it was being mother to an anti-apartheid and gay activist at a time when it was both dangerous and illegal to do so.
“Elizabeth Nkoli and her family were subjected to harassment by the police due to Simon Nkoli’s activism and I think we must celebrate the love that she showed her son amid those difficult moments. A part of me believes that Simon wouldn’t have been as brave and as daring if it wasn’t for his mother’s love and safety,” he says.
We often don’t view our icons and heroes as coming from somewhere – it’s as if they are delivered to us ready for us to embrace, and sometimes to use and abuse, for whatever cause they stand for, until we are done with them. But, before they were our icons and heroes, they were members of families and communities.
After his death, Simon’s mother spoke of him fondly and sometimes, with much pain. Lishivha shares that during their interviews “Mrs Nkoli recalled the exact dates when the police came to arrest Simon. She remembered all those moments with vivid detail, and she was direct and didn’t mince her words. It was difficult recollecting all these memories because it brought back the pain of having lost her child.”
Whilst she did not approve of his political activism, MaNkoli mothered her son during the turbulence of the 80s, joining support groups of mothers of detained activists, and supporting her son during the infamous Delmas trial, a memory she recalled as well with pain. This pain was deepened by looking at her living conditions and that of her surviving child and grandchildren, and it left her sombre.
“Simon’s mother lived feeling marginalised in the shaping of his memorialising projects. MaNkoli reflected on the limited opportunities afforded to Simon’s surviving family members and their ‘unfree’ legacy at home. She kept a tea set Simon bought her as a reminder of how supportive he was. MaNkoli believed her life would have been better if Simon, her Abuti, was still alive,” Pakade shares.
What life could have been for Elizabeth had Simon lived longer we may not know, but what we do know is that we could have done more to honour her, as the source and living memory of a man whose life we continue to laude and celebrate.
MaNkoli’s biggest frustration was how her son’s name was used all over the world, even in places she had never been, and yet many of those who lauded him never set foot in Sebokeng where he was from and where she remained. She was not looking for commercial benefit, but she hoped for a voice in what became her son’s legacy.
Elizabeth Nkoli was a woman who raised her family as best she could, with what was available to her and her husband at the time. She was also a woman who dedicated her life to her community and her church.
Lishivha recounted that at her funeral on the 2nd of December, Elizabeth’s pastor shared that the burial date was also his birthday, and that for the past 48 years since Mrs Nkoli became a member of his church, he had received a birthday call from her every morning on the 2nd of December. That morning marked the beginning of an absence of those calls.
Two days before what would have been Simon’s 66th birthday and days before the 25th anniversary of his passing, Elizabeth crossed over. She is survived by her daughter Grace and three grandchildren.