Radical Objects: MaThoko’s Post Box & the Birth of the Black LGBT Movement in South Africa

By John Marnell

Simon Nkoli visits the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London, 13 July 1989 (photo thought to be by Gordon Rainsford). All photos courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA)

Simon Nkoli visits the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London, 13 July 1989 (photo thought to be by Gordon Rainsford). Photo courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA)

Sometime in the early 1980s, an unassuming house in KwaThema, a township just outside of Johannesburg, became a safe haven for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Like the other houses in the township, it was small – only four rooms – and simple, matchboxes made on the cheap by the apartheid state. It belonged to Thokozile Khumalo, known affectionately as MaThoko, who for the next decade opened her home and her heart to countless young people.

MaThoko’s house was the centre of a vibrant LGBT community in KwaThema (photo by David Penney)

MaThoko’s house was the centre of a vibrant LGBT community in KwaThema (photo by David Penney). Photo courtesy of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA).

The house itself was demolished in 1997, four years after MaThoko’s death, but her old post box was saved by activists. And while this rusty, battered box may not at first seem a radical object, it did in fact play an important role in South African LGBT history. MaThoko’s house was for a time the centre of a vibrant community, and her post box served as a key communication node for the nascent LGBT movement. Letters from across the country passed through it, some related to political campaigns but many from people desperate to know they were not alone. Today the post box is on permanent loan from Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) to the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, where it stands as a reminder of the complex and at times difficult relationship between the anti-apartheid and LGBT struggles.

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