Nkoli-Fassie Society has for most of this year gone under the rather tortuous name of “The Society Currently Known as OutRhodes.” As part of this year’s Pride Week, however, an official name changing ceremony was held. The society will henceforth be known as Nkoli-Fassie Society. The change was prompted by concerns both about associating with the name “Rhodes,” and the worrying possibility of potentially outing members to whomever pays their society subscription fees. The new name is instead composed of the surnames of two of South Africa’s most important queer icons – but who are they, and why are they so important to the queer community?
Brenda Fassie (1964-2004)
By far the better known of the two, MaBrrr was an incredibly successful South African singer, whose fame – and infamy – have lasted beyond her death. She was a woman of the people, whose music and life resonated strongly with the disenfranchised poor of the townships, and became one of the symbols of the anti-Apartheid struggle. But she was not without controversy. Problems with drug abuse dogged her career, and when she was found in a hotel room with the body of her female partner, Poppie Sihlahla, dead of an overdose, both her sexuality and drug use became matters of public knowledge. As the epitome of the struggles of being queer in a heteronormative society, and yet still achieving incredible feats, Brenda Fassie remains a queer icon for all South Africans, for good reason.
Simon Nkoli (1957-1998)
The continued invisibility of Simon Nkoli is one of the greatest tragedies of South African history. An anti-Apartheid and gay rights activist, Nkoli founded the first black gay organisation in Africa, the Saturday Group, in 1983, and with Bev Ditsie, organised the first South African pride parade in 1990. Before his death in 1998, he was also one of very few African gay men to publicly declare his HIV-positive status, and continued to advocate for HIV-positive African men all his life. He lived long enough to see the inclusion of sexual orientation in the equality clauses of the new Constitution, and the subsequent repeal of the earlier sodomy laws, before finally succumbing to AIDS. Nkoli received many awards during and after his lifetime, but perhaps the best indication of his character and dedication was the courage he had to change the ANC’s perception of homosexuality: by coming out while facing the death penalty for opposing the Apartheid state. His legacy, and name, are a welcome addition to the annals of South African queer history, and to Nkoli-Fassie Society.