It is a slightly warmer October day, and I make my way down from the all-too-familiar environment of Upper Campus, to the not-too-familiar law student terrain of Middle Campus. After a fair deal of searching, I eventually figure out how to get to the bottom floor of Kramer building, and position myself at an empty table, the others having been secured by perplexed-looking students, their faces right up against laptop screens or buried in immense textbooks. Nigel arrives a few minutes after I do, and apologises for having been slightly late.
“My whole life can be described by mess!”, they say as they sit down opposite me, breaking the tense silence of the space with a burst of laughter.
Nigel Patel is a 22-year-old law student at the University of Cape Town, who has played an influential role in queer activism, both on UCT’s campus, as well as in wider South African society through their writing, and social media presence. They grew up in Malawi, a country notorious for its anti-queer laws, with a family comprising of a variety of ethnicities.
“I grew up with white family, black family, and Indian family”, Nigel explains.
Their grandmother on their mother’s side, a white woman from England, moved to Malawi and married a black Malawian man. On their father’s side, Nigel’s Indian grandfather married what we would classify in South Africa as a coloured woman, but Nigel emphasises the fact that different postcolonial countries define race in different ways. The melting pot of racial identities that make up Nigel’s family allowed for them to experience and understand different situations.
“I think I got a sense of all the different spaces,” Nigel reflects.
Being queer in a space that is so blatantly anti-queer is undoubtedly an extremely threatening position to be in, but Nigel explains to me that there are a multitude of grey areas with regard to anti-queer laws in Malawi, mainly owing to the fact that they are almost entirely based on British colonial sodomy laws. The laws make it very difficult to verify that an individual in question is in fact queer; in that proof needs to be provided that this individual is actually engaging in sexual activity with someone of the same “sex”. In addition to this, the laws are permanently being suspended and unsuspended.
“It’s not even clear currently if it’s illegal to be queer or not,” says Nigel.
When they are back in Malawi over university holidays, Nigel is in a sense protected by the difficulty to effectively prosecute under the laws, but also by the trusting relationship that they have with their circle of friends back home.
“I’m within a circle who are not necessarily going to call the police and be like, ‘Go arrest Nigel’”, Nigel says with laughter in their voice, “I’ve surrounded myself with very good people”.
Moving back and forth between Malawi and Cape Town has created a juxtaposing dynamic in terms of Nigel’s identity, and their ability to express this identity in its entirety. In Malawi, Nigel needs to tone down their expressions of their queer identity, but in Cape Town, they are able to wear and do what they want. To an extent, of course.
“In Malawi, I need to be a certain kind of self, just for self-protection, and to be sane in the space. In Cape Town, I can do a little bit more, I can be a fuller sense of self.”
Nigel wonders if they will ever go back to Malawi, given the theoretical resources and activist experiences they now have to change the status quo.
“I think I’m in a position which allows me to do stuff, and change things,” Nigel considers, “I definitely would like to go back and do stuff, I’m just not sure when.”
Their involvement in Rainbow, UCT’s LGBTQ society, and in the SRC, happened quite unprecedentedly, as Nigel describes it. In Nigel’s 2nd year of university, Rainbow’s committee at the time was stepping down, and there was nobody to fill the empty spaces. Despite having spent only one full year at UCT, Nigel agreed to fill the position of Vice Chairperson, with one of their friends filling the chairperson position, which was originally offered to Nigel.
When it came time for the 2016 SRC elections, owing to their vocal responses to contentious comments made by a previous Vice Chairperson, as well as the role they played in Rainbow, Nigel ran for and came to be the 2016 Vice Chairperson of the UCT SRC. After having spent only 2 months in office, Nigel stepped down from their position, with the understanding that one group of people is not capable of representing 27 000 students with a plethora of unique needs and concerns, specifically when this group of people perceives themselves to be an intermediary between management and the students.
“SRCs are for students. Management has its resources. I don’t think SRCs are supposed to balance management interests, they are supposed to push student interests as far as they can,” Nigel explains.
Nigel was inundated with opportunities when they stepped down from their position as Vice Chairperson, which they were surprised by, considering the fact that they had not signed up for much at the beginning of the year, given their prior commitment to the SRC.
“Stuff opened up last year when I decided that I was not going to work for SRC, and try and collaborate with other people, do independent projects, and work for organisations that are trying to help other people.”
In their July 2017 article for the Mail and Guardian, “Riots for a queer resistance”, Nigel discusses the album “Rainbow Riots”, and the way in which it aims to uplift and make visible queer artists from marginalised countries. Nigel talks to me about the concept of visibility, which they wrote another article about, “The significance of being seen”, published by the Mail and Guardian in early October 2017.
“A lot of the time, people just don’t feel seen, and part of feeling seen also then impacts what you’re able to access in terms of just living a decent life. So if you’re not seen, and you’re going through all of these struggles, it’s hard to make noise about that when nobody’s listening or when you don’t have a voice.”
Priyanka Naidoo, one of Nigel’s closest friends, recognises the importance of visibility in Nigel’s life.
“Nigel obviously possesses a huge amount of social capital, and I think, with that, they understand that visibility is super important. I’d say that they’re one of the more visible people on campus,” she says decidedly.
In addition to the article-writing, Nigel has been doing some creative writing in the form of short stories. Their piece “Oscar” featured on Type/Cast in June of this year. Nigel tells me about the importance of creative writing in the spreading of queer messages, specifically given that queer African creative writing is often overlooked, erased, and not given the same platform that writing centring around heterosexuality is given. Over and above this, theoretical queer writing is also inaccessible to the general populous. Nigel reflects on the role their writing and social media presence would have played in their life, and explains that this is why they do what they do.
“17-year-old me would have loved to have been able to read the stuff that I write now, or be able to scroll through my Twitter thread, or see an article that I wrote, and be like; ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a whole life out there for me.’”
Nigel has just completed the first draft of another short story, and has worked on a video in conjunction with Iranti, a queer rights media organisation. We cannot wait to see what else Nigel has in store.