I recently attended an enthralling panel dialogue in which Dr Siphokazi Magadla, a lecturer at Rhodes University, was presenting her doctoral thesis research. Her research looked at the erasure of ex-women combatants from the history of the liberation struggle and how they have been integrated into democratic South Africa.
I could not help but draw links between the engrossing presentation by Dr Magadla and a moving documentary I’d watched a month before titled “Simon and I”, by Beverley Palesa Ditsie and Nicky Newman. ‘Simon and I’, narrated by Ditsie, a South African queer activist, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) and the first woman to address the United Nations on issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community, poignantly details her relationship with Simon Nkoli. Nkoli was an anti-apartheid, queer rights and AIDs activist. In his youth, he was a member of Congress of South African Students and the United Democratic Front, speaking strongly against the Apartheid regime which eventually led to his arrest in 1984. He was sentenced to death with 21 other activists in what would be known as the ‘Delmas 22’. He would later be released. After his release, he co founded GLOW and the Positive African Men group. He died in 1998. Ditsie and Nkoli led campaigns for the inclusion of protection of minority groups from discrimination in the Bill of Rights of the interim and final constitutions of South Africa.
After watching the documentary, I felt ardent and inspired, yet I could not shrug off a discomforting sadness.
“Why have I not known about this? About them?” I asked myself. “Why is an important piece of history, my history, erased?”
In his 2016 piece for the New York Times, “The Painful Consequences of Erasure”, Parul Seghal writes that erasure refers to the systematic and institutionalized efforts to silence historical truths of groups seen as inconvenient to society. The histories, legacies, triumphs, contributions, symbols, stories and pains of these groups are distorted, dismissed and or disposed. Seghal points out that erasure is a violent practice and is part of a process to maintain systematic oppression.
But what exactly does the erasure of queer identities from our own histories mean for us, today? How do we reintroduce these histories and what do we do with them? How do we grapple with our complex identities in relation to history?
Erasure in most instances is met with resistance. Liyabona Nkubevana, a friend of mine, described resistance as a “state of existence in an oppressive order”. Accordingly, the erasure of Simon Nkoli from mainstream and visible discourse has been met with resistance. The Annual Simon Nkoli lecture and the rebranding of a Rhodes University society for queer students to “Nkoli-Fassie Society” are examples of resistance. (The latter being the fusion of Nkoli and Brenda Fassie, a South African musical icon, anti-apartheid activist and openly-bisexual woman who pushed boundaries and defied social norms.)
However, resistance against queer erasure has not been limited to the invocation of the memories of individuals but rather an understanding that emancipatory struggles are continuous and take different shapes. British comedian and actor Stephen Fry argues, “Knowing history is not enough” instead, knowing history allows us to “imagine”. The contemporary forms of resistance against queer erasure can be said to be imaginative. Some draw from history and some invent new histories but the common principle is the continuation of a historical struggle. Thus, queer people today are having a conversation with history through contemporary resistance.
Resistance is evidenced in the arts, literatures, sports and social movements. It is seen in: Zanele Muholi, a photographer and founder of Inkanyiso, who has used visuals to tell the stories of black lesbian women in South Africa; FAKA, a cultural movement for black queer expression started by art duo, Fela Gucci and Desire Marea. The UCT Trans Collective, a movement of transgender activists, speaks out against exclusionary student movements while tackling institutionalized exclusion of transgender people. In March 2016, the Trans Collective disrupted an art exhibition organised by the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement and the Centre for African Studies citing the marginalizing of queer activists from the movement. This moment highlighted the erasure of the physical and mental labour of queer activists as well as the need to recognize the intersecting identities that form part of student movements.
The contributions and legacies of queer activists Beverley Ditsie and Simon Nkoli to history have been censored. However, the growing resistance from queer individuals, groups and communities to defy social norms and recollect historical memories provides for much optimism. In this defiance, we can learn from the mistakes and contradictions of the past. In as much as I cannot provide all the answers to the questions, by reflecting collectively, we can think of how history can be used as an emancipatory tool and our contributions to that struggle.