Celebrating 30 years of Johannesburg Pride

Today, 30 years ago, the first Lesbian and Gay Pride March in South Africa was held in Johannesburg. The Pride March was organised by the Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand, led by Beverly Ditsie and Simon Nkoli. When the Pride March took place, I was knee high to a grasshopper and had no idea what was taking place in the country politically. The seeds that were being sown at that Pride March would affect the trajectory of my life as a young queer kid growing up in South Africa. 

Growing up I remember seeing the Johannesburg Pride March on the SABC news and hearing people around me passing all kinds of remarks about gay people. So, while I was interested in the Pride March and what I was seeing on television, I did not make my interest known. As a queer kid in Kwazakhele I wasn’t sure what Pride was, all I saw were people wearing interesting clothes with placards who were involved in something that looked like a “Toyi Toyi” and a Toyi Toyi was something I was already familiar with. Toyi Toyi had been a mainstay of South African society and therefore the news, so that element of the Pride March I could figure out immediately. 

As I grew older, and grew into my queerness, I started to seek queer media like Gay Pages, EXIT, and other international gay magazines, and through these reading materials I would learn more about Pride. 

I only really understood the history of Pride when I went on a study abroad trip to the United States in my second year of university. It was here that I was exposed to the history of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place in New York City. The realisation that there were so many queer people in the world was profound. Learning about this history had a great impact on me because growing up, I had only thought there was me and a few others who were queer. Existing in isolation. Queer people were not part of the curriculum in school, and even at university, there were no classes that touched on queer people or the sexuality movement’s history. So, in many ways, my study abroad trip helped to shape the way I saw my queerness and helped me situate the Pride Marches I had been seeing on SABC news over the years. 

I attended my first pride in 2007 in Cape Town. I was in my first year of postgraduate studies, in other words, I was in my honour’s year at the University of Cape Town. Cape Town Pride takes place early in the year, February, and so I was just fresh from Port Elizabeth when I attended Cape Town Pride. I had met a group of Swedish visitors in Port Elizabeth just before I left PE. I had served them at the restaurant I was working at in Port Elizabeth, and coincidentally they were going to Cape Town after their time in PE and we exchanged numbers. I met up with the strange group of Swedish young people who were friendly and sweet. The young Swedes made my first Pride memorable as we went marching through the streets of Cape Town. 

I remember that I wore the tiniest shorts and a small pink t-shirt on that day. It was also during this time that I was obsessed with Ntlantla Nciza of Mafikizolo fame’s bug-eye-sunglasses that covered half your face from their Sophia-Town-inspired music and dress during the 2000’s. I remember feeling on top of the world during Pride, and marvelling at such a glorious gathering of queer people from all works of life.

The Pride March started in Somerset Road in Green Point and went through the CBD, moved through Adderley Street, and up Wale Street, and then went back to Green Point via Buitengracht Street where there was a huge party. To think this was 12 years ago, and so much has happened to Pride politics in South Africa since then. I suppose in many ways, the political contestation preceded my attendance of Pride but have, indeed, intensified in the last couple of years as we all struggle with the meaning and politics of Pride in South Africa. 

Since my first Pride in 2007, I have since attended Pride events in other parts of the world. I have seen the different ways that other countries and cities organise Pride and some of the politics involved in organising Pride. I remember being awed by the magnitude and glory that is San Francisco Pride. I had never been to a “world city” Pride like San Francisco before, where the size of the Pride itself was hard to wrap your head around, and you must accept that you will miss most of the Pride because it’s impossible to see everything. 

I have attended Minneapolis Pride with friends I met while studying in Minnesota. This was a radically different experience from San Francisco, both in magnitude and also in the way in which people approached Pride. Minneapolis Pride was midwestern in nature, like a “mom and pop” shop, while San Francisco was like a “corporation” (Thanks Mariah). While on holiday in Nice, France, my boyfriend and I discovered that our visit coincided with Pride, and so we participated in the Pride March and the party afterwards. The Pride March was relaxed, and the after party was also very laid back, held at the pebble filled beachfront in Nice. These experiences demonstrated to me that different places do Pride differently. Although the premise of LGBTI rights and the fight for equality is reflected in most Pride Marches, many places go about it in different ways. 

On this 30th anniversary of Johannesburg Pride, I thought it was important to reflect on Pride in South Africa since it has been mired in controversy over the past couple of years, and some would argue, it has been controversial since the 1990’s. It is also important to reflect on Johannesburg Pride because when it took place 30 years ago, it was an important moment for LGBTI rights in South Africa. 

When I attended Pride in Johannesburg in 2012, the Pride March was disrupted by a group of black feminist lesbians from One-In-Nine. I was moved by the One-In-Nine disruption of Johannesburg Pride and their calls for a minute of silence for the lost lives of black queer people, particularly gender non-conforming black women. One-In-Nine also demanded the reinsertion of politics into Pride and the decommercialization of Pride. The response from the Johannesburg Pride organisers that year was hostility, walking and talking over the protesters, and even racists remarks that the One-In-Nine protesters should go to their “lokshins.” This was a painful moment in the history of Johannesburg Pride. It was a moment to pause and reflect on LGBTI politics in South Africa. 

In trying to make sense of this moment and what it meant for Johannesburg Pride, but also for LGBTI politics in South Africa, I wrote about this disruption moment. The piece was published in the journal Agenda, titled, Disrupting Johannesburg Pride: Gender, Race, and Class in the LGBTI movement in South Africa. This was my attempt to use intersectionality to argue for a more nuanced understanding of LGBTI politics in South Africa. In the piece I conclude that in South Africa we need to decolonise the LGBTI movement where the movement takes seriously the postcolonial issues that South Africa suffers from. Also, I argue, there is a need for postcolonial thinkers, and people in the postcolony to seriously engage LGBTI politics as they manifest in the postcolony. I argue that this will enable us to engage and imagine a better future for LGBTI people in the postcolony. 

With the stratification of South African society, the politics of pride is complicated. This is demonstrated by the different Prides that have been created outside of the main Pride events. It is really in response to the hostility found in the “mainstream” Pride in the major cities of South Africa, that alternative Pride events have been established. One such Pride event is Khumbulani Pride which takes place in different townships around Cape Town around April. 

Khumbulani Pride has become an important annual event that centres the lives of black LGBTI people in their backyards. It is a Pride March that also helps to conscientize the communities in township spaces about LGBTI lives. Khumbulani Pride engages in a particular politics with black communities ensuring that LGBTI people are seen. An example of this is how during Pride state service providers like the South African Police Services are engaged with in order to establish and nourish relationships that would help end hate crimes. 

The physical and sexual assaults on LGBTI people, particularly those who are gender nonconforming is an ongoing violation, and the communities where these violations take place need to be engaged with if we are to end the violence. This is what the black feminist lesbians from One-In-Nine were trying to articulate with the disruption of Johannesburg Pride. That the lives of black LGBTI people matter and that there has to be space and a place for politics in Pride. The One-In-Nine members were demanding rights for ALL LGBTI people, and not just those who are white, who are middle class, male, or those who are cisgender. 

In South Africa there is often a tendency to ignore or bypass complexity and nuance. Ironically, this is exactly what is necessary to understand the post-apartheid moment as South Africa democratises. We need to me more nuanced and be able to learn to hold two, or more, seemingly contradictory truths at once. South Africa is an incredibly diverse place with different ways of life, and this demands that we are empathetic to others who do not live, and love like us. 

I was very excited when I saw the promotional artwork for Johannesburg Pride 2019. The promotional material includes a colourful image with the inscription “Pride of Africa” which is befitting for the celebration of 30 years of Pride in Johannesburg, and by extension in South Africa. Johannesburg, and Cape Town Pride for that matter, have been heavily accused of non-inclusivity and focusing on the needs of white middle class men in the choice of venues for pride events, and the route that the Pride March takes. It has seemed, for the most part, these complaints have fell on deaf ears. What this year’s Johannesburg Pride has in store is to be seen at the end of October. What I have gathered online, there’s been some complaints about the programming not prioritising queer artists. It is my hope that Johannesburg Pride organisers rectifying the non-inclusiveness of the past Prides. I hope they take seriously the calls to be more inclusive. 

Pride has played an important role in shaping my queer identity. Whether it is through reading about Pride, looking at pictures of Pride from different places in the world, or me physically attending Pride, Pride creates a sense of connectedness to other queer people. It provides us with a sense of safety in numbers, but also a sense of safety in being yourself in amongst people who “get” you. The question of safety, both emotionally and physically, can’t be taken for granted in the atmosphere of endemic violence in South Africa. 

It is my hope that as we celebrate 30 years of Johannesburg Pride, we think about what pride means to us. To think about what we want Pride to look like. It is my hope that we pursue a Pride that is imbued with politics, that understands that in its essence Pride is Political. I hope that as we celebrate 30 years of Pride, we realise that LGBTI includes more than just gay and lesbian people, that we take seriously bisexuality politics, the issues faced by transgender people, and we seriously engage intersex issues, particularly as it pertains to children. It is my hope that we will recognise how our queer struggles are intricately linked to the struggles of the poor, to the struggles of farm workers, and the struggles of mineworkers. It is important for us to make the connections between queer struggles and the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. It is my hope that we see the links between forces of Afrophobia (that is often called xenophobia) in South Africa and queer struggles. 

All of the struggles I mention above have one thing in common, it is people who are othered, they are seen as not belonging, they are seen as outcasts, they are poorly treated by the state. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is familiar, it is how we as queer people have long been treated by the state and society at large. It will do us good – and the South Africa we want to live in of the future, a South Africa of tolerance, freedom, where people experience love, and have dignity – for us not to forget that we as queer people, not so long ago (and continue to do so), were once othered, harshly. It is through this remembering that we are able to empathise with others who might be less powerful than us at this juncture of human history. 

As we move forward, may we continue to strive for relationalities that surpass the limits placed on us by Eurocentric, patriarchy-obsessed, capitalist, and religious normativities, and the socially constructed fear of difference. 

I want to wish all queer South Africans a happy 30th celebration of Johannesburg Pride. May we move forward with the yearning of a queer utopia where love, dignity, and freedom are in abundance. I hope this year’s celebrations of Pride bring us together like Simon Nkoli and Beverly Ditsie had envisioned in 1990, so that wherever Simon Nkoli might be, he can rest easy and chuckle to himself saying, “even with brown bags on our faces, we did a good thing.” 

On being South African

Recently, I have acutely felt the everyday weight of living in South Africa and being South African. This is because of a recent trip abroad. It is often when I land somewhere foreign and watch others in a different society go about their daily lives that I understand the heaviness I carry as I navigate everyday South Africa. The heaviness is acutely felt when I settle into the everyday life in a foreign city, doing mundane things like taking the subway, waiting for the green figure light to cross the street, or grocery shopping. It is during these routine exercises that I begin to be aware of the weight I carry on an ongoing basis in South Africa. 

I become aware of the weight I carry simply because in the foreign city I begin to lose that heaviness. It is through the process of taking on the foreign city, behaving like the locals, and adhering to the social rules of the foreign society, as one does in a new city, that I start to really appreciate the burden of everyday life in South Africa. This is because the defences I have to put up when leaving the house in South Africa are down. Unlike home, where I have to brace myself for South African society, in the foreign city I do not fortify myself as I do at home. 

For most of my life in South Africa I have used public transport. If you are taking public transport, you have to deal with unsolicited remarks made by taxi drivers, bus drivers, and other public transport operators. This is before the unsolicited remarks made by other passengers. These remarks are often about what you are wearing, whether you are a girl or a boy (even though you are clearly a boy, just slightly effeminate), or other enquiries that have nothing to do with the services rendered of transporting you from point A to point B. 

When I used to live at home, my mother and I would trade stories about public transport navigation, mostly I would listen to her taxi horror stories. In these conversations I only partly shared my taxi horror stories because mine included homophobic comments, and I couldn’t bring myself to share those stories at the time. My mother’s refrain during these conversations was that a taxi ride in the morning can ruin your whole day because you arrive at your destination, which was usually work for her and school for me, wounded and already exhausted. 

With this history in mind, you can imagine the delight of having to take a subway train in a foreign city, without having to interact with any humans because you can buy traveling tickets in machines, and other passengers pay you no mind as they are neatly seated in their seats reading books and newspapers. In foreign cities, I have finished whole books, reading them only while in transit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanahis one such book that I read almost completely while in public transit abroad.  

It is through living in foreign cities that I have come to appreciate how much I live in fear. As a South African, it is hard not to be aware that I live in a dangerous country. I live in Cape Town, the murder capital of South Africa according to police murder statistics. I don’t personally know a South African that has not been a victim of crime. Security is big business in South Africa, and so is insurance. The suburbs of South Africa are famous for their big walls and electric fences. Where I live, in the Atlantic Seaboard, there are neighbourhood watches, security listservs, WhatsApp groups, and weird random little Wendy houses in the streets for security reasons. The possibility of crime hangs over us and dictates how we navigate our society.  

All of my friends have been mugged at least once. Most of us more than once. The last time I had my cell phone violently taken away from me I went home and slept. The next morning, I woke up and told the story of the mugging. I was hysterically sobbing in my boyfriend’s arms as he comforted me. He kept on saying, “I am just glad you were not harmed; it could have been worse.” He was right, people have died in cell phone mugging situations. Come to think of it, I wasn’t crying because of the cell phone that was gone, it was insured, I was traumatised by the violation. I remember repeating the words as I was sobbing, I feel so violated, I feel so violated, I feel so violated

It has become customary for my group of friends, and as I have seen for many other groups of friends and families in South Africa to always inform others of your arrival at home after a night out. This has become so routine that when someone forgets to report arriving at home, as it sometimes happens when one is intoxicated, panic ensues. 

What I am demonstrating here is the extent of the fear we live with in South Africa and the everyday precautions we take to be safe. It is living in foreign cities that I have come to understand just how much I live in fear. What becomes painfully evident is that the fear and the precautions we take on a daily basis encroach on our freedom and quality of life. It affects where we go, it affects who we go with, it affects how much fun we can have, and even what you might wear. In South Africa when you are thinking about social events or going out, safety is a key element, whereas I have experienced in foreign cities the key element is where is the most fun, or what kind of space do I desire. 

Fear for your safety changes the way you relate to the world around you. In South Africa we have become so conditioned by fear that the safety precautions we take have become second nature. We are ruled by fear. Our fears have become part of the architecture of our lives. Even new buildings in South Africa are constructed with fear in mind and this obviously affects how living spaces are designed. 

Contrast the South African reality with living in a foreign city where people routinely forget to lock their back doors. Contrast it with people losing their belongings and being able to claim them at a lost and found department. I once left a small bag with cards, money, keys, and other personal items in a bus. I realised this when I wanted to open the door of the house and I didn’t have the keys. A week later, when I had given up on the bag, I received a letter in the mail that my bag was at the bus depot. I went to go claim my bag, and it had everything in it, including my money which was counted, placed in an envelope, and stored in a safe. Inevitably I thought about what would have happened if I was back home. Would I have been able to find my things, and sadly I concluded that I would have never seen my belongings again.

In many ways traveling abroad makes you come face to face with yourself, and the question of home. As a queer person, I already have mixed feelings about “home”, and this is compounded when I travel abroad. I am South African. I have a passport to prove this, and I am psychologically and emotionally invested in my South Africaness, but truth be told, I am not even sure what being a “South African” is or means. 

In the current political climate, the question of being South African becomes even more murky as you try to answer follow up questions to “where are you from.” Where are you from is a question I expect when I am the singularly black body in a room full of white people or when people detect my accent in conversations. What has become a landmine to navigate is the follow up questions after you admit to being South African. On more than one occasion I have had to circumnavigate questions of Afro-phobia attacks (often referred to as xenophobia) perpetrated by South Africans on other Africans living in South Africa. I have fumbled my way through these questions, which at times have felt accusatory, and other times said in jest. In all cases, they are awkward, they are hard to answer or to engage with, particularly in social settings with a gin martini in hand. 

Another terrible interjection after you mention that you are South African is the “is it safe there” or “isn’t it dangerous there.” The answer to this question is complicated because I wrestle with how to be honest but not be a bad ambassador for the country. A job I never applied for, a job which I think many South Africans would object to me having anyway. I wrestle with not feeding already existing black and African stereotypes and singular narratives about violence and brokenness. 

Since I am a sociologist, I usually want to give a 15-minute lecture, which of course is not conducive for most social settings, but really should be. The truth of the matter is that the danger question is complicated because yes, danger lurks around many corners of South Africa, as I have shared above in my own personal violations. That danger varies according to class, which is linked to race, which is linked to geographical location, which are all linked to colonialism, and then apartheid. This danger is further complicated by gender, gender identity and performance, and sexual identity. So, you can see how my answers can quickly become seminars and prove very difficult to have in pop-quiz-conversations in a gin-martini-in-hand setting. 

I am currently living in Toronto on an academic fellowship for a couple of weeks. There are different social rules here, different ways of doing things, and I can’t help but reflect on life in South Africa through comparing and contrasting. While I am well aware that societies are not the same, and societies have different histories that shape them, comparing and contrasting societies offers a way to think differently about taken-for-granted social structures at home. 

The question I wrestle with is, do things have to be the way they are in South Africa? The answer is no, there are other ways of making life. 

Experiencing life in foreign cities you begin to see that there are multiple ways of seeing, of doing, of being. Being exposed to other parts of the world you begin to understand that your society’s way of doing things is but one of many ways of doing things. The societies we live in are worlds made up by people, they are socially constructed and engineered in a particular direction over time, which means that we can change our societies. We can create different ways of living. 

Experiencing life abroad also makes you see the many ways humans are connected. That people, the world over, have similar worries, and for better or for worse, we lead similar structured lives. Being exposed to other ways of life one realises, very quickly, that one doesn’t have all the answers to society’s problems, or to life’s issues, but this is not a unique thing, it’s a human thing. It seems to me that it is of utmost importance to embrace the fact that we do not exist in isolation. 

One of the questions that we must ask ourselves and try to answer as South Africans is, what kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want to create – note here I said create. Which means that we have to decide, we have to construct, we have to engineer the kind of world we want. 

Another important question we ought to ask and try to answer is, what does or could living together look like? This is not a question that should have been asked in 1990 and 1994, and then shelved. It should be an ongoing question, and we need to be open to the answer changing over time as society changes. In South Africa, for the most part, we occupy the same land mass, but we do not live together. 

We need to seriously imagine what living together means and entails? What would we have to do to practice living together? Are we willing to let go of some of the parts of ourselves that are divisive in our society for a greater goal of togetherness? In other words, are we willing to sacrifice some of our strongly held identities in order to create a more harmonious society? 

In writing this I am not oblivious to the history of colonialism, the history of apartheid, and the history of cowboy capitalism that have shaped South African society. I am also painfully aware of the ongoing psychological impact of these historical processes on South Africans. In all of this, I do believe, with political will, and a conscientious and driven leadership, we can build a better society.  

I keep imagining living in South Africa without fear. What does a life without fear look like, what does it feel like? What kind of society would we need to engineer for us to live without fear? Thinking about a life without fear I am reminded of a Nina Simone video that has done the rounds on social media. In the video she is asked what freedom to her is, and she answered, living with no fear. Imagine a life, a South Africa, without fear. 

What is Freedom: Freedom is No fear.

The Decriminalisation of Homosexuality in Angola and the Idea of Hope

Last month, January 2019, I attended the two day “Gender, (Inter) Generation, and Negotiating Power in Families Workshop” at the University of Cape Town (UCT). At the end of day one of the workshop, Professor John Comaroff, the distinguished professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University (of Jean and John Comaroff fame) delivered the closing remarks. I was struck and inspired by Prof. John Comaroff when he closed the workshop as he spoke about hope. He said that it sounds like a cliché, and maybe it is, but in these social and economic tumultuous times we must keep hope alive as we struggle towards lasting solutions to the ills of our country, indeed the world. 

Comaroff’s spoke about hope just days before Angola was to announce the decriminalisation of same-sex acts and the banning of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The news was widely welcomed, and people around the world rejoiced for the progressive movement that Angola was taking in acknowledging the humanity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Angola. 

As I was reading about the decriminalisation and the banning of discrimination based on sexual orientation, I kept on thinking about John Comaroff’s words about hope, and how Angola’s move instils a sense hope with regards to LGBT politics on the African continent. Angola’s progressive stance comes months after Tanzania was reported to have searched for and rounded up LGBT people in the country. There were reports that people were being brutalized and tortured and thrown into jail. Many LGBT people, and LGBT activists in Tanzania were reported as going into hiding fearing for the lives. 

The LGBT victory in Angola is not insignificant, considering the recent troubles in Tanzania; considering the unsuccessful introduction of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, a bill that was widely known as the “kill the gays bill” in Uganda; considering the targeting of transgender people by the Trump administration in the United States; considering the prosecution of LGBT people by the Nigerian government; considering the continuous murder of transgender people in Brazil; considering the homophobia and physical violence still faced by LGBT people in South Africa – despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal here; considering the rounding-up and torture of LGBT people in Russia; considering the rounding-up and torture of LGBT people in Chechnya; considering the reported story of a man who was raped, reported the rape to officials and was then subsequently charged with same-sex relations under the penal code in Tunisia, a code that carries the penalty of 4 years in prison. 

Angola is a beacon of hope in a world that is adamant about the brutalisation of LGBT people. While it might seem insignificant looking at the widespread persecution of LGBT people around the world, it is significant. It is a move in the right direction towards justice and human rights. Angola provides a progressive roadmap for the other 33 or so African nations that still criminalise same-sex intimacies. In Mauritania, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, and Southern Somalia those found guilty of same-sex intimacies potentially face the death penalty. Hope, then, is important in the troubled times we live in, times of increased fascism (United States anyone) and authoritarianism (did someone say Brazil), where human rights are undermined in the most disturbingly glaring ways. 

Of course, one has to be cautiously optimistic because we know that decriminalisation and the banning of discrimination based on sexual orientation is only addressing part of the problem. Decriminalisation changes laws, but not hearts:  there is much work to be done to transform families and communities where LGBT people actually live and experience everyday harassment, discrimination and sometimes violence. 

While recognizing the limited effect that a change in the law will have on the lived reality of LGBT people, we can’t underestimate how changing of laws creates avenues for citizens to have recourse when they are victimized. The change of laws in post-apartheid South Africa has had profound effect on the sense of belonging of LGBT citizens in South Africa. The recognition afforded to LGBT people by the Constitution of South Africa became a catalyst, first for changes in the law, and then (and more gradually) changes in attitudes. This culminated, as it were, in the adoption of legislation recognising same-sex marriage. So, the changing of laws is a fundamental step in the process of ensuring the human rights and the human dignity of LGBT citizens. It is such an important step, that Pierre De Vos, convincingly argued that the Constitution “contributed to the constitution of lesbian and gay identity” in democratic South Africa in the aptly titled paper, “The Constitution Made Us Queer.” 

It is impossible to speak about the decriminalisation of same-sex intimacies in Angola, or any other African state for that matter, without talking about the impact of colonisation and the laws created by imperialists government on the lives of LGBT Africans. Angola, a former Portuguese colony, adopted anti-sodomy and other homophobic legislation from the Portuguese settlers. And like Mozambique, another African state formerly colonised by the Portuguese, Angola is now slowly transitioning to be a place where LGBT people and their ways of loving are recognised by the law as legitimate forms of intimacy. 

Angola is no longer included in the list of countries that criminalises same-sex love.

It is striking that it is formerly British colonies (Tanzania, Nigeria, and Uganda are three who have made headlines in recent years), that have been historically particularly cruel towards LGBT people. This probably tells us much about the legacies of puritanical values of Victorian Britain with restrictive laws created by settler colonists, and how they have been adopted by native Africans against other native Africans with detrimental consequences. In this context, the progressive movement that Angola has embarked on provides an opportunity for a different narrative for LGBT Africans, a narrative that Africans themselves can be at the centre of constructing. 

LGBT rights are often advanced by the tireless work of LGBT advocacy groups and non-profit organisations lobbying and pushing for change. Groups like Iris Angola Association (Associação Íris Angola), that is now legally operating in Angola, are visible and empowering LGBT people. The kind of work done by Iris Angola Association can only strengthen as the populations they are working with are no longer constructed as “breaking the law.” One of the biggest impacts that decriminalisation does is to afford LGBT organisations space to do the kind of work that is necessary to empower LGBT youth and LGBT communities. This is important in ensuring a better livelihood for LGBT people, and to cultivate a culture built on the respect of human rights. 

Engaging with the developments in Angola, I am energised. I am filled with hope of a better continent, indeed world, for LGBT people. I am given strength to continue the fight for social justice for LGBT people. I am encouraged to continue engaging those in power who have not seen the light yet, that LGBT rights are human rights. I am filled with hope that slowly our societies will see that until ALL LGBT people are free everywhere, there can never be real LGBT freedom anywhere. 

Same-Sex Marriage Around The World

I am near the end of my research project on Same-Sex Marriage that I will be able to share with the world once it has gone through all the formal processes at the university. Over the past twenty years, Same-Sex Marriage has been legalised in many countries around the world. The year, 2016, marked the tenth year since same-sex marriage was legalised in South Africa. In the court case Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie, the Constitutional Court (2005) granted same-sex couples the right to marry and instructed parliament to implement a law that would allow same-sex couples to marry.  The Constitutional Court gave the state a year to implement the new law, and in November 2006 same-sex marriage was legalised. South Africa is the only country on the African continent that legally recognizes same-sex relationships. It was the fifth country to recognise same-sex marriage behind The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and Spain. It was the first country in the southern hemisphere and the first republic to legalise same-sex marriage. Today South Africa is one of more than twenty nations in the world in a growing list that recognizes same-sex marriage, the majority of which are in the Global North.

In recent years, Australia was added to the growing list of countries that have legalised same-sex marriage. To celebrate the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia, the people at Carvaka Adult Toys created a video to chart the wonderfully positive progress of same-sex marriage law changes around the world. The Australian victory for Marriage Equality is a wonderful moment to reflect on the many nations that have taken the necessary steps towards a more just and more loving world. Enjoy the video from the people at Carvaka Adult Toys.

The Makwande Republic Experience

Last year, I spent Easter Weekend in Hamburg, Germany at an Easter Brunch hosted by a good friend of mine. This year, I spent Easter Weekend in a small village, Goshen, in the Eastern Cape. The village is nestled in one of the many valleys in the Amathole Mountains. The nearest “town” to the village is Cathcart. What brought me to Goshen was the Makwande Republic Experience. It was described as a “creative meander” that was organised by the formidable Ukhona Mlandu. This was my first time in this part of the Eastern Cape.  It’s interesting that I had never been to that part of the country considering that I grew up about 300 kilometers away from Goshen, I grew up in Port Elizabeth. Of course, part of the reason that I never went to Goshen is exactly because I grew up in Port Elizabeth (PE). The biggest “city” in the Eastern Cape, in other words, people in other parts of the Eastern Cape come to PE, not the other way around. I have since seen the limits of such thinking. My experience in Goshen has further demonstrated the shortsightedness of such mentality, as there’s so much to see and experience in many other parts of the Eastern Cape.

When I received the invite to the Makwande Republic Experience, I knew immediately that I wanted to attend the Art Meander. After deliberating on the best way to get there, I settled on a ten-hour road trip from Cape Town to Goshen with two good friends and the cutest-brood-inducing toddler. The road trip was fantastic. It was filled with all the things that make a road trip, stops in cute small towns for coffee breaks, conversations about everything under the sun, the state of South Africa, and our soundtrack was Angry-Girl-Music. But the drive between Fort Beaufort and Cathcart was the absolute best in terms of scenery. I could not get enough of the mountains “waar die kranse antwoord gee”, the winding roads, the never-ending valleys, and the lushness. It was so green, and of course, everything seemed that much greener than usual because in Cape Town there is a draught.

When we arrived in Goshen, it was around 19:00 the village was quiet. It was expansive. The sun was going down but it was still light out. It was serene. It was beautiful. The homesteads were far apart. Goats were roaming. Many of the homesteads had quintessential Xhosa village housing like rondavels, while some were built in “modern” suburban housing structures. While taking in the scenery of the village I realised that as someone who grew up in a township, seeing and experiencing village life is exciting and also an education in South African land politics. The ways that townships were created, and continue to be created is radically different from the layout of the villages. While taking in my surroundings, I wondered to myself how my life would have turned out if I had grown up in a village like this one.

As I was meeting others who were also here for the Makwande Republic Experience, there was a bonfire starting, and people were huddling around the fire. While in Goshen all of us “city” folk visiting the village stayed in different homesteads all over the village. I lived with an incredible woman, who was born in Goshen, but spent most of her life in Johannesburg. We had the most amazing conversations about life in the village; her work life as a nurse in Johannesburg, and about how difficult life was for her when she first moved to Johannesburg because of apartheid. We had such a great rapport, that she gave me as a gift this beautiful hand made bag. The bag really belongs in a museum more than it belongs in my closet. I am convinced that she sensed that I was queer and that I love beautiful things, hence she gave me the bag. The kind of homophobia I experience in Cape Town was absent in Goshen, even though I was clearly Ouma-se-kind. The kind of welcome I felt in Goshen is the kind that I used to read about in Xhosa books like Unojayiti Wam.

One of the most beautiful experiences in Goshen was the hike to Iliwa lika Mqede (Mqede’s Valley). The valley is not visible when you are in the village, but the whole village faces the direction of the valley. The hike was incredible. We walked across what used to be farming land but was now used for grazing by cows and goats. We also walked past a beautiful area called Entilini, where I envisioned a beautiful Cape Dutch style house for myself surrounded by rondavels. When we arrived at Iliwa lika Mqede we couldn’t shut up about how eerily it looked like the background of the fighting scene in Black Panther before the coronation of the king. From then on throughout the weekend we would make connections between Makwande and Black Panther’s Wakanda. After relaxing and taking lots of pictures, we hiked back to the village. When we arrived back we were tired but fulfilled.

After the big hike, we arrived at the village with firewood from the fields for a bonfire. After a bit of rest, we were summoned to a homestead nearby to participate in a traditional ceremony. The ceremony was a thanksgiving to the elders. When we arrived at the rondavel of the homestead, we were asked to sing as we enter, as it is traditionally done in many Xhosa festivities. You announce your arrival with a song. The Xhosa way of knocking is a song. So of course, we sang, Nilelena? Nilelena?, Nanku umntu enqonqoza, Nanku umntu esiza. The music created a jovial atmosphere where we danced and sang with the village people before we had even shaken hands. This was a special moment; here we were at the home of people we had never met, we were asked to sing as a way of first encounter. No shyness. No embarrassment, just greetings in song. We sang on top of our voices, we clapped our hands; the village people inside the rondavel joined us. I was touched. I was flying. And the acoustics inside the rondavel were fantastic.

We were offered food and a drink. We were also offered sorghum beer. We drank from the communal bhekile. The elders from the village conversed with us. There was one man who welcomed us. He spoke beautifully about how we were now part of the village, and how we are welcomed to come back. He spoke about how our spirits will stay in Goshen, and we will also take with us Goshen spirits. It was a beautiful connection with elders and young people while drinking sorghum beer and praising the ancestors.

Later on, more visitors arrived, and more singing ensued. When the second round of singing began, the Xhosa drum came out and one of the women from the village began playing the Xhosa drum. The drum was made of cowhide. The cowhide was white and brown. It was a beautiful drum; it looked new, as there were no signs of wear and tear just yet. I love Xhosa drums. I have one myself, and I often play it when I need to hear that unmistakable Xhosa sound. The drum playing skills of the woman who played the drum were incredible. She could go up and down, soft and hard, middle of the drum and outer parts of the drum, all of which create different sounds. Her playing summoned the ancestors. I was so taken by her and her skill that I almost asked for lessons. I think next year when we go to Goshen, they must introduce Xhosa drum lessons.

After the second round of singing started, we never stopped. We were all sick with song in that rondavel. Besixhentsa. Sicula. Siyiyizela. With the sound of the drum, the Xhosa melodies, the moving of our bodies, all inside the rondavel, I was transported to another universe. There was something magical about that space, something otherworldly, something that was out-of-body-experience about being in that rondavel with my people. In many ways, it was healing to be there, in that I never had to explain myself. There was a way in which I was accepted, even though I was a foreigner in that I am a city mouse invading the country, I was welcomed with love and without suspicion. The village people were sharing with me whatever they had, and I was touched and felt honoured.

Since I left Goshen I have been listening to Amanda Black’s Amazulu. She captures my experience at the Makwande Republic Experience in Goshen in the Eastern Cape succinctly. My experience at the Makwande Republic is particularly captured when Amanda sings:

Drifting
I’m drifting away
Into the darkness
Ndizothath’ umthwalo
Ndimbeke emqolo mama
Ubomi bunzima
So lift my head up high
Open my eyes
And I will fly oh
I’m barely coping
I’m feeling closed in
Looking up, hoping
The heavens will open
Mdali wezulu
Ndikhalela kuwe
Open up, open up
I’m feeling closer now
The light is shining brighter but I’m losing my flow …

Avuleka avuleka avuleka
‘Vuleka amazulu
‘Vuleka amazulu
‘Vuleka amazulu

Avulekile Amazulu indeed.

This was the inaugural Makwande Republic Experience. Personally, I am excited about the next Makwande Republic Experience. This was the beginning of something special. It was a meeting of the minds kind-of place. It was a place where blackness can be without having to explain itself. It was a place where Xhosaness is celebrated, not as an appendage to something else, or as “heritage day” but as an ordinary way of everyday life. I have been inspired by what I experienced at the Makwande Republic and I am excited to have a creative giving back to the village when I attend the next Makwande Republic Experience.

What Ukhona has done with the first Makwande Republic Experience is inspiring. Makwande Republic is an idea that was materialised. Ukhona demonstrates to us as young black South Africans that we must use what we have where we are to create the futures that we think we deserve. With the Makwande Republic, Ukhona embodies the words of June Jordan that “We are the ones we have been waiting.” May we learn from this amazing creative meander, and may we replicate it in our own ways where we are. Makwande indeed!  Kube chosi Kube hele.

Some of the photographs were taken by Ukhona and others by Laura.

Book Review: Under The Udala Trees

Title:                         Under the Udala Trees

Author:                     Chinelo Okparanta

Genre:                        Prose fiction

No. of Pages:             328

Publishers:                Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Year of Publication:2015

ISBN:                        978-0-544-00344-6

Review Written By:                   Eugene Yakubu

I have nothing against the penis, it’s the life support system that comes with it which I object to. – Marianne Thamm

Some literatures only come around once in a lifetime and when they arrive, they make the best use of their advent and leave the readers more enlightened, the world more habitable and our differences tolerable. Matter of fact, Chinelo Okparanta made her debut in a grand and impactful way and her memories will go a long way in African literary history. Her first novel Under the Udala Treesis remarkably devoid of most of the avoidable errors that many first time novels emerge in— stunning, witty, bewitchingly manipulative and still yet simple; little wonder Under the Udala Trees has become a favorite amongst most literature lovers in 2017. She has a masterful description of Nigeria during the civil war and her gory images of war are almost as frightening as her theme.

Under the Udala Trees is a humane account of a tongueless love that dares not speak in African society, an unconventionally truthful narrative of a love— innocent and young between Ijeoma and Amina which is cut up with demeaning stares and accusing fingers. It reflects the different facets of love— sensual, unforgettable and dangerous.

She did in a creatively new way what lesbian and radical feminists have been up and about trying to deconstruct— the omnipotence of the phallus (man) in any hetero-patriarchy. This is readily apparent in the characterization of her lesbian protagonist Ijeoma who has set her mind to always believe that “[a] special man friend was the last thing on [her] mind” (137) but will always cherish her bonding with Amina and Ndidi and eventually forego her marriage and family just to be with Ndidi her lesbian partner even though in the society, women are made taboo to other women not just in sex but in comradeship too. This characterization and trope is grounded in Adrienne Rich’s (1996: 136) essayCompulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence where Rich argued that

Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women…a form of naysaying to patriarchy, an act of resistance

This “resistance” according to Rich is what Chinelo offers in Under the Udala Trees as the subversion and inversion of fixed gender roles, stereotype of women as weak objects, emotionally and sexually needful of a man, the negation of sexist’s notion of women and femininity as only for “reproduction and nurturance, whereby being a woman is trapped in a single function— mothering” (Irigaray, 1981). The characterization of Ijeoma in Under the Udala Trees provides a voice for African Lesbian feminists who are emerging daily to deconstruct hetero-normativity and the superiority of the male sex over the female.

Chinelo will be known as the writer who captures dangerously bewitching themes that are however a break from the overt sociopolitical and stale thematic preoccupation that most African literature is known to be shrouded in. Under the Udala Treesreconsidered the flawed and bias laws of subjugation affecting non-normative bodies and identities in Africa’s strict sexuality.

We tend to undermine the graceful issues lying prominently in this narrative if we dismiss it as only a lesbian narrative, and even at that, Chinelo brought to fore a totally digressive arm of lesbianism which screams in loud tones that women are fixed categories on their own and don’t necessarily need the phallus economy to survive.  This book is about a number of issues, ranging from the mutability of gender roles, subversion of patriarchal hegemony, homophobia, politics, feminism, wars (physical and psychological wars), childhood, innocence and growing up. It has overlapped the tiny canvass of just another LGBTI literature and proffers ideological models that are sure to capture any reader’s attention.

Chinelo did her research so well that after going through this literature, the reader in the end leaves her world unsure of his/her sexuality. This literary feat is applaudable for it has gone a step further to enchant the readers’ psyche and toss it around accordingly to suit the writer’s orientation. Worthy of mention is the place of psychology in the text; the writer shows mastery of the human psyche by instilling psychical cause and effects factors that lead to certain behavioral patterns in man. For instance, it isn’t just a random plot that portrayed Ijeoma as orphaned at a tender age or emotionally detached from her mother, for this factors contributed in forming the main character’s personality. Worthy of mention is also the place of dreams in the narrative. The writer uses dreams to represent reality in symbols, thereby unearthing the subconscious of characters, that part of them that is hidden from the outside world. This masterful feat can be further appraised by psychoanalysts to determine the various shades of events that predispose characters to a certain personality trait.

The feministic notion in Under the Udala Trees can not be overestimated. This text launches a different degree of African feminism, a radical and searing one at odd with anything masculine and tends to encourage women to channel their love and affection towards other women, distancing the feminine sex from anything masculine. Okparanta carved her protagonist to be a desiring subject rather than a timid “object”, emotionally and sexually self- sufficient, a deviant, a heretic, an undomesticated female, a lesbian just to counter the hegemony of patriarchy and contends that because the lesbian makes love to another woman outside the limit of procreation, she stands as the ultimate threat to hetero-patriarchy and jeopardizes the supremacy and omnipotence of masculinity. So basically, Chinelo stands in the same group with radical feminists like Audre Lorde, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich and a host of others who proffer that the feminine body is unique and has its own “specificity” which is totally at odd with heterosexuality and by extension masculinity.

Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is a timely gift to the whole world— a perfect template of simplistic artistry and humane sensibility— a sensibility valued far above its beauty, its edification above aesthetic valor. Even though her perceptions seem keener than her vocabulary, she demands not just to be read but to be experienced. This ‘Madonna of books’ will literally dislodge your rigid view of sexuality and open up boatloads of possibilities to what you initially consider rigid polar of gender and sexuality. The uniqueness of Under the Udala Treesis that after all said and done, the literary acuity and the enchanting arguments it creates a future more hospitable to differences and tolerant to “otherness”; it tenders that to be one to be different is a good thing; to accept the right to be different is better; and more so to realize that some persons are born different is maybe even best.

February 2018 Cosmopolitan: A Mini Bible of Sexual & Gender Diversity

We should all be contributing towards making South Africa a better country for all who live in it. Our contribution towards the building a just and democratic society takes many forms, and this is why we can all play our part, no matter how small, to build a prosperous nation. I think the February 2018 issue of Cosmopolitan does its part in contributing towards a more open and more tolerant South Africa.

Although I am a magazine junkie, don’t usually buy Cosmopolitan magazine. I bought the February 2018 issue of Cosmopolitan because it has Laverne Cox on the cover. Laverne Cox is an actress, an Emmy-winning producer, and a transgender activist. Laverne Cox is the first transgender woman to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. She is the first because transgender women have been, and continue to be discriminated against in many societies around the world. Publications like Cosmopolitan have not regarded trans women as women. So her being the first does not mean transgender people have not existed before, they were largely ignored by beauty magazines.

In the interview, Laverne Cox speaks about her favourite things, her favourite people, and the new projects she is doing. Buy the magazine for the full lowdown. Two things stand out for me in the interview, that is her message to readers and the way she describes gender. She says to the readers:

“Let’s live a more fun, fearless life by embracing love for ourselves and each other and connecting to a purpose bigger than ourselves.”

When she describes gender she says:

“(Gender is) The spiritual experience of one’s gender as male, both or neither and simultaneously the social and cultural constraints that organise around a set of expectations. Cultural expectations and the individual, spiritual experience of our gender can be in conflict.”

Holly Meadows, the editor of Cosmopolitan South Africa, says that with this issue “we wanted to do our small part in providing a platform for visibility for the LGBTQI community.” I will assure you there is nothing “small” about this Cosmopolitan issue. It is big. Having Laverne Cox on the cover of this issue is a small part of a really amazing issue that celebrates sexual diversity while simultaneously providing some much needed education. All done in the beautiful “fun-fearless-female” language that Cosmopolitan is famous for.

The issue is packed with useful information about transgender rights, gender identity, and sexual identity. Early on in the magazine you read a discussion about coming out at work. One writer takes a pro coming stance while another rejects coming out at work and they share their reasons. Both sides of coming out are shared from a personal experience, and also what other people have gone through. The issue of coming out is relevant, and it will be relevant as long as people have to come out because society takes heterosexuality as the standard norm.

Coming out is something that was relevant in my research on same-sex marriage, because even though South Africa has same-sex marriage, people still struggle with coming out to family and friends. This tells us that LGBTI people continue to live under pressure to stay in the closet. What is revealed by same-sex marriage, or the process of marrying is that the coming out process is not a linear process, and it differs from person to person, and how marriage somehow facilitates a kind-of coming out process for some LGBTI people.

In the South African climate where LGBTI people are still in the peripheries representation continues to be important. So this issue of Cosmopolitan recognises that and throughout the issue some of South Africa’s LGBTI icons, artists, celebrities, activists, and sports stars are featured. It showcases the important work done by activists, but also the contribution of artists and other celebrities to South African cultural life. The magazine highlights some of the contributions by LGBTI South Africans to the nation.

In the issue there is a “The Rainbow List” which really chronicles the historic LGBTI moments in South Africa post 1990. With all the negative headlines mostly about violence towards LGBTI people in the newspapers, it can be easy to forget the amazing gains made in post-apartheid era. The magazine provides a little LGBTI history and some of the historic television moments, including that controversial same-sex kiss between Thiza and Thabang in Yizo Yizo. I remember the conversation that kiss caused and how excited I was to witness the scene. This Cosmopolitan issue takes you down LGBTI memory lane in an easy and accessible way. Of course, the little history depicted in the issue is not exhaustive, but some of the moments that were important, moments that caused all the conversation and had an impact on the South African consciousness.

I really appreciate the “Gender What” section, where a number of people talk about their gender identity and their gender performance, and generally how they see themselves and their sexuality. The people featured in this section speak candidly about the limited societal conceptions of gender and how there’s so much more to people than “male” and “female.”

Of course, this is a magazine; so all of this amazing gender and sexuality talk exists amongst advertisements of perfume, lip gloss, and all kinds of fashion items.

The section that focuses on different people with their different genders and sexual orientations is very powerful. It showcases people from all walks of life who note some of the ways they experience life in their non-normative genders and sexuality, and most importantly they all describe what love means for them. They give us quotable quotes about love, and what emerges from this spread is that love is important to all of us. The spread is a rainbow of people with different takes on love. People from all walk of life with different sexualities and genders but connected by a desire for love and wanting to share love.

This is a wonderful issue from a mainstream magazine like Cosmopolitan. It gives one hope about a different world where the porousness of gender and sexuality will be common knowledge and celebrated. Where an issue of Cosmopolitan with a transgender woman on the cover will not necessitate a write up like this one. Well done to Holly Meadows and the Cosmopolitan team for a fun and fearless issue that really demonstrates that not only do #TransLivesMatter but that #TransIsBeautiful and that we can #SayYesToLove in all its different varieties.

Thabang Setona And The Ongoing Gender Violence In South Africa

South Africans have become desensitised to violence. At times it feels like violence is everywhere. Many men in South Africa feel like and act like they are entitled to be violent. Growing up as a queer kid I moved around feeling like violence is imminent. Many parents use violence when raising their children. Sometimes teachers at school enforce discipline by beating children – despite the fact that this is illegal. They do not call it assault. Instead, they call it “spanking” or “giving a hiding” and sometimes they call it corporal punishment. We are a society in which physical assault is often viewed as normal, as something that should be expected and accepted.

Like many people, I read about and watched in disbelief the scenes of violence outside Luthuli House this past week. There has been an urgent need for us as South Africans to think differently about violence, all kinds of physical violence. Considering our violent history, colonisation and then apartheid, you would think there would be many community initiatives, an array of government policies and initiates, violence reduction education programmes, all aiming to reduce the violence in our society and the damage that it does.

The woman, Olivia Makete, being kicked by Thabang Setona, and the other women being bitten with sticks was a disturbing sight. There has been collective outrage about the scenes of violence, rightfully so, and the ANC even suspended Thabang Setona and he gave himself over to the police. But what many fail to understand about the scenes of violence outside Luthuli House is that they are not isolated. They are part of the way South Africans are in the world. We are a people conditioned to believe that physically harming another person solves problems. We are a people that talk about violence boastfully and at times jokingly. We have all kinds of euphemisms to talk about violence as if it’s a nice thing.

Many people in South Africa believe that children should be beaten when they misbehave. Recently the beating of children has been rejected by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural‚ Religious and Linguistic Communities in South Africa. Parents are urged to find different ways to make children understand right from wrong.

Many have rallied against the groundbreaking court ruling that beating children is unconstitutional, citing that the court is overreaching. This argument is interesting because many people agree that the government must intervene when children are being abused or mistreated at home. At the same time, they do not believe the state should intervene when parents assault their children as a way of enforcing discipline. Many have argued for corporal punishment using all kinds reasoning to substantiate the continued use of violence. Some of the reasons are about culture, and the potential collapse of society if children are not beaten for misbehaving. Wessel van der Berg does a good and clear job of deconstructing the myths surrounding corporal punishment in a piece published by News24 in 2016.

I am talking about corporal punishment here because there is a link between corporal punishment and violence. I am also talking about corporal punishment because there is a link between gender violence and corporal punishment.

Violence affects boys and girls differently because we treat girls and boys differently, and often boys and girls are punished for different reasons. Boys who experience violence end up perpetrating violence, like we saw Thabang Setona and the other men who had sticks outside Luthuli House.

Girls who experience violence grow up accepting that violence is something that happens to women and that’s just how it is. When we beat boys we condone violence, we say to boys beating someone up will solve a problem. When we beat girls we condone violence, we say to girls being beaten is part of their life and they must accept it. Gender violence is ubiquitous in this country because we are raised to think that men beating women is an inevitable part of our gendered natures. This is something we have constructed, and this is something we have the power to change.

South Africans beat children when they misbehave, to demonstrate right from wrong, and to show who is the adult. Men beating grown women operate on the same axis, in that men see themselves as adults who teach women right from wrong, correct misbehaviour, and demonstrate who is the adult, thereby demonstrating who has the power in relationships. So gender violence is ubiquitous in South Africa because as a society, particularly men in this society see women as children and therefore deserving corporal punishment. The scenes outside Luthuli House are disturbing, but great illustrations of this. Outside Luthuli House you see men – young men, beating women – older women, with sticks, in the same manner, many adult South Africans beat children. The infantilisation of women is palpable.

Perhaps we use violence so much because we are broken. Perhaps we use violence because we feel powerless. Perhaps violence is a sign of not being in control of one’s destiny. Perhaps men feel small and inconsequential – a smallness that is a product of patriarchy, and by beating women they can feel better about themselves. If any of this is true, then the onus is on us to change the way we raise boys, to consciously construct different ways of being a man in the world, and to unequivocally reject violence in its many manifestations.

I was also taken aback by the outrage over the scenes outside Luthuli House. The very “outrage” that many were showing over violence emphasised the “vulnerability” of women. Many emphasised how women should be protected instead of focusing on how men should STOP perpetrating violence. Violence is what needs to stop.

How we think about violence, as a way to solve disputes is what is the problem. The structured power that men have over women is the problem. The “vulnerability” of another human being looks different if you are not looking to physically assault them. Many talk about the vulnerability of women as if it’s natural, but men manufacture the vulnerability of women in South Africa by continuously perpetrating violence against women. If as a society we eliminate physical violence towards women, women immediately stop being “vulnerable” to violence.

The violence outside Luthuli House comes after I received a message from my mother, that my cousin has a court appearance because he physically assaulted his wife. The parents of my cousin, my uncle and aunt, apparently were begging the girlfriend to withdraw the charges she made against him. I told my mother to advise her not to drop the charges. Eventually, she dropped the charges because my aunt and uncle pressurised her to do so and she relented. When I saw the scenes outside Luthuli House, and I thought about my cousin’s wife, the injustice of it all was overwhelming. As I said, at times it can feel like violence is everywhere.

It is turning out to be a horrible year for women and it is only February. Just like last year was a horrible year for women. And the year before that was a horrible year for women. Officially, the Demographic and Health Survey 2016 from Statistics South Africa paints a grim picture of the prevalence of violence in South Africa. One in five partnered women has experienced physical violence by a partner. 10% of women aged 18-24 experienced physical violence from a partner in the past 12 months. Partner violence is the highest in the Eastern Cape with about 32% of women reporting being violated.

This is the province that has rallied behind the closure of cinema’s showing the provocative movie Inxeba, a movie that speaks to some of the violent tendencies contained in Xhosa cultural practices. Something I have written about elsewhere. If only the people in the Eastern Cape rallied against gender violence in the same manner they rally against Inxeba. Crime Statistics from the South African Police for the 2015/2016 year show that there were 164, 958 common assaults and that there were 182, 933 assaults with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. These are the recorded assaults. There are thousands of unreported assaults. How many of those assaults do you think were perpetrated by women?

The problem with the situation of my cousin, and many other physically violent men in South Africa is that with silence, with covering up, with withdrawing of charges, by turning the other cheek, with ignoring the signs, by not believing women, by silencing kids who are victims, by encouraging boys to be violent, by expecting girls to accept violence, by infantilising women, we make it safe for men to continue to perpetrate physical and other kinds of violence on women.

We have to make it unsafe in South Africa for men to perpetrate violence. James Baldwin once said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” What James Baldwin is alluding to here is the need to forsake ourselves and all that we have been taught about gender. We need to be aware of the ways that masculinity functions in our society and device strategies to create an equal society, starting with bringing up girls and boys who are not defined by their anatomy and are not taught violence as a way to teach right from wrong.

We all have a role to play, particularly men, in making South Africa a country where violence, gender violence doesn’t exist. That begins with us making it unsafe for men like Thabang Setona and his ilk to perpetrate violence against women.

 

“There is not one but many silences”: Responses to Inxeba (the wound)

To say that the movie, Inxeba (the wound) is controversial is to put in mildly. I have written about my experience of seeing the film, and how moved I was by the movie. The film has resurfaced the conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. I say “resurfaced” because the conversation about Xhosa initiation tradition is an ongoing conversation. Both Thando Mgqolozana, one of the writers of Inxeba, and Nakhane, one of the actors in the movie, wrote about the initiation process or some aspects of it in their respective books. Thando Mgqolozana wrote A Man Who Is Not a Man and Nakhane wrote Piggy Boy Blues. So Inxeba, the movie, uses a different medium to contribute to an ongoing conversation about different initiation experiences.

Majola’s album Boet/Sissy is also part of this ongoing conversation. In Boet/Sissy Majola sings about life as a queer Xhosa man. I wrote a review of the album as I was also moved by Majola’s work. It is worth repeating partly what I wrote on the review of the song Mountain View, where Majola sings about falling in love on the mountain:

“The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid gloves. In the song, Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate on the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.”

What I want to demonstrate here is that there are some Xhosa men, particularly queer Xhosa men who have been vocal and engaging in a conversation about Xhosa initiation rites. Mgqolozana, Nakhane, and Majola have all produced work that speaks to Xhosa initiation rites. These creative works highlight the different experiences of boys journeying to manhood. Inxeba is a wonderful contribution to this ongoing conversation.

Before I watched the movie, I had seen on social media and newspapers that there were people, particularly Xhosa men who were against the movie. Many have been upset because the movie exposes Xhosa initiation rites “secrets.”

Nakhane has received death threats over the movie. As people living in a democratic South Africa, people are allowed not to like the movie and express disagreement over it, but death threats over the movie are alarming. Ironically, the death threats towards Touré reveals the very toxic Xhosa masculinity that is on display in the movie. The violence that Touré is being threatened with is linked to the violence that often accompanies the making of Xhosa men. You have to appreciate the fucked-up-ness of our society where death threats are so nonchalantly issued and treated as normal when you disagree with someone.

Even the Xhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu has weighed in on the “debate” over the movie calling for a boycott of the movie. It is hard to imagine that King Sigcawu has seen the movie yet because he is in the Eastern Cape and the movie has had limited screenings, and none of them were in the Eastern Cape. This means that the King has not seen the movie, but he is calling for a boycott of the movie.

According to the Times, the Xhosa King and other traditional leaders will submit a complaint to the Film and Publication Board and National Heritage Council about the film, apparently, the film is “too graphic.” As someone who has seen the movie, I wonder which part of the movie is “too graphic”? Is it the bum sex scene? Is it the circumcision scene? Or is it the scene at the end of the movie?

According to the Times, the King has said that the movie will instigate “the wrath of ancestors. Attacking and insulting this custom is an attack to our ancestors.” This is interesting because the King does not seem to wonder about the “wrath of the ancestors” when queer Xhosa boys are physically and sexually assaulted when they go through initiation. Where is the talk of the “wrath of the ancestors” when Xhosa boys come back from the mountains in body bags. I am sorry King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu but the “wrath of your the ancestors” is very selective, not to mention condones homophobic violence.

I find that the outrage over the movie is outward looking. People are preoccupied about how we, Xhosa people, will look to the “outside” world. Yet, the call of this movie is for us, Xhosa people, to look at ourselves. It is a call to maybe rethink some aspects of our culture.  It is a call to think about – what does the things we do do? While it is important that we respect and take pride in our Xhosa customs and traditions, we can’t do so blindly. As people, we need to question and call out harmful practices, even if they have a long lineage.

The responses calling for the boycott of the movie, and the death threats on Nakhene’s life, is all about silencing. The responses are about having control over the narrative surrounding initiation practices. The initiation process is shrouded in secrecy. It is mythologized. One is forbidden to talk about it in fear that “secrets” will be revealed. As Xhosa men, we are held to ransom with the silence. The silence is powerful. At times the silence enables destruction. The silences surrounding the initiation process reminds me of Michel Foucault, who wrote:

“Silence itself–the thing one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers–is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.  There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case.  There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, p. 27).

Indeed, there are many silences surrounding the Xhosa initiation process and Inxeba breaks some of that silence. We need to pay attention to the silences that exist between all the things that are said about the process of making Xhosa men. In the loud elevation of pride in tradition, there is the silencing of the horrific aspects of our cultural traditions. In the blind and vigorous holding on to “Xhosaness”, there is the silence on the destruction of young people’s lives. While there is noise about preparing men for heterosexual manhood, there is silence about homosexual desires. There is silence over the production of misogyny in the initiation process. There is silence over the botched circumcisions that are reported on every “circumcision season.” There are silences about the particularity of the initiation experience for queer Xhosa boys.

Instead of calling for a boycott of the movie, we should really take this opportunity as a space for conversation. The movie is a conversation starter for us to engage with each other, and not just about same-sex love between Xhosa men, but the initiation process itself. We should see this movie as a mirror held up to our faces so that we, as Xhosa people, can look at ourselves. Future generations of Xhosa people, specifically Xhosa boys will be grateful that this moment happened.

Inxeba (The wound) – The trouble with making men

 

Directed by John Trengrove. Written by John Trengrove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu

 

Inxeba (the wound) is a groundbreaking movie. It is a combination of artistry, emotional depth, and a serious engagement with a difficult subject, often taboo subject, that makes Inxeba probably the best South African movie in 2017. Nakhane Touré who plays Xolani, Bongani Mantsai who plays Vij, and Niza Jay who plays Kwanda are amazing in their individual portrays of the characters, but are explosive as a trio. In this movie you are confronted by the violence inherent in the construction of Xhosa manhood through circumcision. You are confronted with the pain of Xhosa men who are unable to claim and live out their sexualities. After watching this movie I am even more convinced that the subject formation of Xhosa men is a violent process. Also, the process of man making is lonely.

Inxeba is a movie about the experiences of queer Xhosa men when they go to initiation school. It is a movie about the intersection of sexuality, manhood, tradition, and desire. The movie exposes the ways in which manhood, particularly Xhosa manhood, in this case, is rigidly policed by other men. You are confronted with the consequences of a homophobic culture and society where men are unable to claim and live out their sexual desires for each other.

I went to go watch the movie with my queer friends. While we were watching the movie, we laughed out loud at certain moments in the movie, we gasped, we looked at each other knowingly, we made faces to each other. We were seeing ourselves in the movie. When we spoke after the movie, we all agreed that watching the movie was like seeing our younger selves on the screen. Stories that centralise the experiences of black queers matters because there is very little of our reflections in South African stories. These stories also matter because they enable us to publicly engage in conversations about culture, manhood, and sexuality. These stories create platforms that enable us to have a conversation about what it means to be a man in post-apartheid South Africa. What is the role of culture in 21 century South Africa? Stories like these enable us to ask questions about the process of “constructing a man.”

For me, this movie has resurfaced questions I have often debated with my and myself and my friends, like, how do you make a man? What makes a man a man? Who can be a man? Who says who can be a man? As a queer person, I have had to engage these questions all my life because my manhood was always under scrutiny. And many men have noted my “failure” at performing manhood.  In one of the scenes in the movie, the initiates are circumcised and the person who does the circumcision asks the recently cut boys to shout “I am a man.” There is something powerful about this pronouncement. Uttering these words just after you have been circumcised cement Xhosa culture belief that you are only a man once the foreskin is gone. It is also bizarre that the foreskin is what separates “boys” from “men.” But of course, I am being simple, for I know that it is not foreskin per se that is at the heart of this practice but the pain you endure as you recover from circumcision.

At one point in the movie, the father of the queer initiate addresses the caregiver, giving him instructions to be “firm” with the queer kid. The father complains that his son is “too soft” and then he goes on to blame the mother for the boy’s softness. It is ironic how the supposed “failure” of the son to be “manly” is blamed on the mother, not the father. Which of course, begs the question, had the son succeeded at being “manly”, whatever the fuck that is, who would get the kudos? I’ll go on a limb here and say that the father would praise himself for having raised a “man.”

The father distances himself from his son, which is very revealing of the relationships many queer boys, particularly effeminate queer boys, have with their fathers. In this then manhood is associated with not being “soft”, not being a “mama’s boy”, and if you are soft, you need to be toughened up. In Xhosa culture, a man is made through pain. The ability to withstand immense pain is intricately tied to Xhosa masculinity. This is not unique to Xhosa culture, of course, it is part of patriarchy in many parts of the world. When I think of manhood construction through pain, when I think of this movie, I am reminded of bell hooks when she wrote:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” – bell hooks

The accuracy of bell hooks in describing the violence of patriarchy on men is chilling. bell hooks speak to the detrimental effects of patriarchy on men. She speaks to the value of feminism for men. She speaks to the need for men to fight patriarchy because it damages men. This quote speaks to the destructive ways in which the characters portrayed in Inxeba conduct themselves, towards themselves and then to each other.

I was incredibly moved by the scene where the men are asked to verbalise and claim manhood after they are circumcised. The “I am a man” scene is interesting to me on many accounts. The queer initiate Kwanda, played by Niza Jay is the last initiate to be circumcised. He is then also asked to announce the statement “I am a man.” In his effeminate voice, Kwanda repeats the phrase. It is the first time we hear Kwanda speak, and the voice is a “giveaway” that he is queer. Even my friends and I looked at each other in the theatre when Kwanda spoke.  After Kwanda says the phrase “I am a man”, the man who performed the circumcision asks him to repeat the phrase, and Kwanda does. Kwanda is the only initiate who is asked to repeat the statement as if he was not heard before but most likely because he was not believable the first time around.

The “I am a man” scene reminded me of myself in many ways. When I went to initiation school, none of the boys who were initiates with me knew who I was. I was thrust into a “man’s world”, a world I had never really been part of in the ways the other boys were. In many ways, I am still not part of that world. I was acutely aware of violent homophobia when you are queer in the company of other men. Men often perform homophobic violence in the presence of other men, in conversation with other men. When I arrived on the mountain I knew that my survival depended on being a wallflower. The problem, of course, is that my personality does not lend itself to be a wallflower. I had decided that I will say as little as possible, keep to myself, and avoid any contact or conversation that would “out” me. It was only on the second day that I realised my plan not to be “out” had failed when another initiate mocked me by mimicking the way I had said the “I am a man” phrase after circumcision. My effeminate voice had betrayed me. Now my girly intonation was being used to mock me. The violence and shame I felt in that moment still makes me well up. And it’s been over a decade now.

The relationship between Xolani and Vij is complicated. They are both in the closet, and they annually meet during “circumcision season” on the mountains.  Vij has a wife and children. Xolani lives a lonely life. Xolani’s loneliness is haunting. What Nakhane Touré does with this character is nothing short of brilliant. Xolani really only goes to the mountain to be with Vij. Considering the homophobic context they live in, and their own policing of their desires, it’s an impossible situation. The homophobia is not only coming from their society and culture, it is also internalised by the men. The two men share intimate moments with each other, but there’s also violence in their intimate moments. It’s as if their desires for each other has to be mitigated by violence.

There are two moments in the movie where we see the complex intimate yet violent interaction between Xolani and Vij play out. When Xolani tries to kiss Vij, he pushes him away, also when he tries to give him oral sex he pushes him away. In both moments Xolani is violently rejected. These are heartbreaking moments. They are moments that make obvious the intricate relationship between shame and desire, and the sometimes consequent violence. Xolani loves Vij, and I think Vij also loves Xolani, in his own way. But it is a love that cannot speak itself. It is a love that cannot be lived or expressed. It is a love that must quietly exist for a couple of weeks in a year, and even then, it must be hush about its existence. Xolani desires more than what Vij can give, and Vij is not willing to give more than he already has, which is not much to begin with.  In this way, Inxeba borrows much from the queer archive of stories of love and double lives, of impossible arrangements where one is sustained for a year by a patchy intimacy of six weeks, and most of all the self-annihilation in the denial of one’s desires.

The irony about the circumcission tradition in Xhosa culture is that it is homoerotic. There are two examples I want to highlight of a homoerotic nature in the movie. Firstly, it is when the initiates are starting to heal, and they decide to show each other their penises. They play a version of “show me yours, I will show you mine” and it is hilarious. The queer initiate is excluded from this conversation. It is not uncommon for men in groups to play show-and-tell, and it is excused as “boys being boys.” The sexual tension that might accompany these show-and-tell moments is often underplayed or nullified. Secondly, when the boys are about to head home, when they are fully healed, the older men comment on the beauty of the circumcised penis. The talk of the penis as a beautiful organ in the movie is strikingly similar to the way my queer friends talk about penises when we are having “kitchen” talk.

Inxeba succeeds because of the richness of the characters of Xolani, Vij and Kwanda. It succeeds because it paints these characters as people with fluid and complex desires navigating rigid systems of identity and culture. These characters are real, they are people I know, I have seen them. This movie succeeds because it sidesteps the traps of portraying black characters on television and movies, particularly queer characters, as one dimensional. It challenges head on the overly simplistic notion that homosexuality is “unAfrican.” Homosexual desires exist wherever there are people. Our homosexual desires are formed in ways we sometimes cannot explain, but there they are. This movie opens up space where we can have a conversation about our desires, space where our desires matter.  As a nation, we should all applaud John Trengrove and the team for an amazing job at story telling. Inxeba is an immense contribution to the queer archive in South Africa.