Graduation part of queer activist’s mission

09 April 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Supplied. Read time 9 min.
Graduand Nigel Patel will use their degree to help effect the decriminalisation of queerness.
Graduand Nigel Patel will use their degree to help effect the decriminalisation of queerness.

Nigel Patel is well known for their activism at the University of Cape Town (UCT), in media and across the city. When they graduate with an LLB on Friday, it’ll be a stepping stone on the way to fulfilling their life’s goal, a path that started in Malawi.

Born in Blantyre in the “warm heart of Africa”, Patel was primarily raised by their single mother and grandmother. With both women working in education, an appreciation for learning was instilled in Patel from an early age.

“I owe a huge amount of my current success to both of them.”

In a country known for its friendly people, Patel grew up knowing the value of friendship – something that has proved integral to surviving and thriving in higher education.

But their home country also contributed to a large part of Patel’s life’s work: fighting transphobia and discrimination against queer people.

“I saw people like me being sentenced to jail and subjected to political and religious persecution … [It] was undeniably tough and scary.”

Despite this, a brave Patel came out when they were just 15 years old. The difficulties around acceptance and safety were a significant motivator for the work they do today.

“I don’t want other generations of children to have to live through what I went through and what the generations before me were subjected to.

“I want queer Africans to be able to live their lives to the fullest, free from being criminalised, and enjoying all their human rights and societal acceptance.”

Patel left Malawi at the age of 18 to study at UCT. Having visited the university during a high school tour and considering its academic standing, choosing UCT was an easy option. Its location was also important: Cape Town and South Africa provide relatively queer-friendly spaces in comparison to the rest of the continent.

“I think the idea that I could be openly queer without the risk of being persecuted through homophobic and transphobic laws was a definite underlying factor that influenced my decision.”


“I don’t want other generations of children to have to live through what I went through and what the generations before me were subjected to.”

Academic activism

Patel completed a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in philosophy and law and then signed up for an LLB.

Choosing law was about the pursuit of justice and to “change the world a little towards good”.

“As I studied law, I really enjoyed the way in which [it] uses words and ideas to propel action and change.”

Soon, Patel started to use their own words and ideas to drive change.

They took part and prevailed in moot competitions and worked as a philosophy and Legal Writing Centre tutor to engage and give back to students.

Within the academic writing space, Patel has had two articles published in academic journals and has written a chapter for a forthcoming book. One of the articles, Violent cistems: Trans experiences of bathroom space, earned them the Yunus Mahomed Public Interest Award.

Patel is also making a name for themselves as a thought leader in fiction. Their short story The Masked Dance was recently selected for The Gerald Kraak Anthology. Head judge Sisonke Msimang described the story as possessing a “Chinua Achebe-type of vibe”.

Patel is using writing to “create and make space for queer narratives”.

“Activism and writing are acts of love and care,” they said.

Writing is just one way in which they contribute to the fight for equality. There’s also Rainbow UCT, the Trans Collective, the Studentsʼ Representative Council (SRC), the university’s sexuality policy, participation in the Fallist movement and work outside of the university.


“I learnt, made significant connections, and did meaningful work out of the classroom as much as I did in the classroom over my five years at UCT.”

Intersectional struggles

“I never explicitly intended to be ‘an activist’; it was a title that was sort of given to me because of the work that I found myself naturally inclined to do,” said Patel.

Life as an activist began when they were nominated and then elected to be the vice-chairperson of Rainbow UCT. During their tenure, they represented queer UCT students in areas such as residence life and health, and socially. This set them up for their participation in #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and The Trans Collective.

“For me, at the core of all of these forms of activism was the aim of recognising and addressing the intersectionality of struggles that work to disenfranchise students based on their race, gender, sexuality and ability, particularly in a higher education context,” they said.

Patel was also on the SRC for three months in 2016 but chose to resign as they felt the SRC at that time was incapable of meeting students’ needs during the fees protests.

Their activism at UCT also included participation in the process of compiling the sexuality policy at UCT. This was an important step toward making the university a space that respects and celebrates sexual diversity.

Off campus, the activist has worked with SistaazHood Trans Sex Workers and Iranti, as well as being a research consultant for the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) where they are helping to write a global report on the laws in Africa that directly and indirectly criminalise trans people and those with queer gender expression.

Support structures

One of Patel’s biggest struggles at UCT has been prioritising self-care and mental health, particularly during times of protest.

Fortunately, they had their coping mechanisms and support structures.

The former included reading, among others, American activist Audre Lorde’s work, and researching healthy working practices.

The latter included their partner Josh Biggs, friends, fellow students and UCT academic staff who enabled Patel’s activism. They named Pierre de Vos and Jaco Barnard-Naude; Nolundi Luwaya who demonstrated what it looks like to do decolonial work at UCT; black queer academic and activist Zethu Matebeni; and the whole of the Black Academic Caucus.


“I learnt, made significant connections, and did meaningful work out of the classroom as much as I did in the classroom over my five years at UCT.”

For aspiring student activists, Patel encouraged them to do “what you love and know why you’re doing it”.

“So much of the work that I do doesn’t feel like work because I love it.”

They also suggest getting involved, working hard in your studies, taking an interest in what is going on around you and taking advantage of what’s on offer at and outside of the university.

“I learnt, made significant connections, and did meaningful work out of the classroom as much as I did in the classroom over my five years at UCT,” they said.

Life goals

Patel’s five years at UCT will culminate on Friday, 12 April, when they graduate with an LLB. They will also receive UCT’s Blumberg Prize for service to the student community as well as working hard academically.

“It’s personally a time to celebrate my friends on all their successes and to honour my mother and grandmotherʼs work in getting me to this point.”

As for their plans going forward, Patel has already started on a conversion of their South African law degree to a United Kingdom qualification at the University of Law in London. The conversion is fully funded by Linklaters, one of the five most prestigious law firms in London. Patel has signed a two-year training contract with Linklaters after which they will be qualified to practise in England and Wales.

“I am excited to push and extend myself doing commercially focused legal work at one of the best firms in the world,” they said.

The contract comes after they completed a month-long Linklaters African clerkship.

And as if that’s not impressive enough, Patel has also been accepted into Oxford to do a masterʼs in African studies. Now they are just waiting to find out about funding.

In the interim, Patel will continue to merge work and studies with their activism.

“My ideal life goal is to help work and effect the decriminalisation of queerness in Malawi specifically, and the wider Africa and the world,” they said.

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Graduation April 2019

The University of Cape Town honoured over 5 000 students during 14 graduation ceremonies that took place from Wednesday, 10 April until Thursday, 18 April 2019. During the 14 ceremonies – attended by about 14 000 people – 70 doctoral degrees and 383 master’s degrees were conferred. An honorary doctorate in engineering was be awarded to Professor David Roger Jones Owen on Saturday, 13 April 2019. Among the speakers at the various ceremonies were Judy Sikuza, deputy executive director of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation; Nkazi Sokhulu, co-founder and CEO of Yalu Financial Services; Sam Paddock, co-founder of GetSmarter and GetWine; UCT engineering alumnus Mavo Solomon; and Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba.




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