A landmark new publication collecting the letters written by the late legendary gay activist Simon Nkoli while he was in jail has been launched during Pride 2007 Week.

Till the Time of Trial: The Prison Letters of Simon Nkoli is edited by Shaun de Waal and Karen Martin. Written over four years, the letters chronicle the time Nkoli spent in prison during the Delmas Treason Trial and while attending the long hearings.

The letters were written to friends, comrades, and later to his supporters overseas. They also include letters to his lover at the time of his arrest, Roy Shepherd, and reflect the frustrations and challenges of maintaining their relationship during those difficult times.

On 6 January 1987, Nkoli writes: “I was happy to see Caroline here yesterday because she is the only link between you and I. But she told me you are unhappy about something, I think she said something to do with short time you spent with me when you were here. Well honey, I was also angry, disappointed and depressed. But I was helpless, there was nothing I could do. But darling that was not the end of the world. We are meant for each other, so I believe one day we will be together again. Let us keep on hoping and praying.”

Simon Tseko Nkoli (sometimes also written as “Nkodi”) was born in 1957 in Soweto. He was involved in the 1976 students uprising, and was repeatedly detained by the police between 1976 and 1981. After becoming an internationally recognised gay rights and AIDS activist, Simon died in hospital from HIV related illnesses at the age of 41 on 30 November 1998.

The selection from the letters, published by the Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA), reveal Nkoli’s political perspectives as well as the deep personal concerns of South Africa’s most well-loved LGBT rights activist. They paint a portrait of sensitive, passionate and also witty man.

In the introduction of the 48 page publication, Graeme Reid, the founder of GALA, writes about the moment when he came across much of the material included in the collection: “I was thrilled when Roy Shepherd showed me what was in a suitcase that he kept in his flat – photos, Simon’s letters, other material from the Delmas treason trial. But the letters were particularly vivid – “My darling Roy” contrasting with the redinked bureaucracy of the prison censor’s stamp.”

“In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man, and I am oppressed because I am gay. So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions…” – Simon Nkoli

The Delmas Trial was one of the most high-profile – and longest-running – anti-apartheid political court cases in the 1980s. Eventually the trial was declared invalid by the Appeals Court and Nkoli and the other 21 activists were acquitted.

Nkoli’s coming out to his Delmas co-accused is considered an important moment in the development of gay rights in South Africa – and he was key in linking the liberation of gays and lesbians with the struggle movement.

“This publication is the first in a series on LGBT history,” said GALA director Ruth Morgan. “We chose as its subject Simon Nkoli and the letters he wrote from prison because the letters form one of the most important collections at GALA, and because Simon stands so powerfully for the idea that human rights cannot be separated.”

In 1990, after he was released from jail, Nkoli said, “In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man, and I am oppressed because I am gay. So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions.”

The launch on Monday October 1, with an address by Justice Edwin Cameron, was part of the events marking the upcoming 18th Joburg Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival Week, and was accompanied by a screening of the acclaimed 2002 documentary Simon and I by Bev Ditsie.

“It’s particularly appropriate to launch this publication during Pride week this year as Simon helped to organise the first Gay Pride march in 1990 and this year also marks the 50th anniversary of his birth,” said Morgan.

Following a lack of support from the largely white GASA, the Gay Association of South Africa, (of which he was a member) after he was arrested, Nkoli founded a new organisation in 1988, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW).

GLOW was non-racial and openly aligned with the struggle against apartheid. It was GLOW that organised the first gay and lesbian Pride march in South Africa in Johannesburg in 1990 – in which 800 people participated.

It is thanks to people like Simon Nkoli – considered a true hero of the LGBT rights movement – that South Africa’s constitution includes a clause specifically protecting the human rights of lesbian and gays. This unique collection of his initiate thoughts and experiences will go a long way in ensuring that he is not forgotten.

Till the Time of Trial: The Prison Letters of Simon Nkoli will be distributed at various museums and heritage sites across South Africa. The book can be ordered for free from the Gay and Lesbian Archives (011 717 1963). Visit GALA’s website.

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