Re-imagining queer life in South Africa and beyond……
Author: Lwando Scott
My name is Lwando Scott. I am a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Cape Town. I grew up in Port Elizabeth but I call Cape Town home now. Like most South Africans I am trying to make sense of this country. I am trying to make sense of my place in this world and I think starting this website, while I should be doing my academic work, is a way of feeling through the darkness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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) 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.
“Rendered here is an array of interpretations of what it means to be fully human, queer and African – three categories of identity often misconstrued as mutually exclusive. The stories collected in this volume give a kaleidoscopic peek into the many ways in which Africans inhabit ‘queerness’, giving fine grained texture to the lives and experiences of those whose humanity is routinely denied.”
– Barbara Boswell, in the Introduction of Queer Africa 2
The vignette above is taken from the introductory chapter of the recently published Queer Africa 2 book. The book is a compilation of queer centred stories predominantly from different parts of the African continent. Boswell’s introduction highlights that queer people in South Africa and in other parts of the African continent are often denied full humanity. The book, Queer Africa, claims space for queer Africans, boldly asserting queerness where it is habitually denied.
Books like Queer Africa are necessary because they celebrate queer life, but they are also necessary because queer lives are still oppressed in many parts of South Africa. Just a week or so ago rural queers were under attack from the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa). The Eastern Cape Chairman of Contralesa, Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana, while attending the funeral of the Xhosa senior royal member Chief Mthetho Ngubesizwe Sigcawu, said that there will be no land allocation for same-sex couples in rural communities. Reported in the Daily Dispatch, Chief Nonkonyana said, “In our rural areas we will never demarcate residential land for any man who is married to another man, not because we punish them, but because sites are according to our practices and are demarcated for a married man who has a wife.” Furthermore, Chief Nonkonyana shared that “According to God’s law, man should marry a woman. Same-sex union is not only anti-God but also un-African.”
Of course, we have come to expect statements like these from Contralesa leaders. Who can forget their display of contempt for same-sex couples during the debates about same-sex marriage in 2006? Also unforgettable is their audacious proposal that the anti-discrimination clause against sexual orientation be removed from the Constitution. Contralesa has a consistent anti-same-sex relationship record. So when these reports about no allocation of land for married same-sex couples in rural communities, it did not come as much of a surprise. But although it is not surprising, it is still unjust.
The notion that same-sex love is “un-African” is a deeply held belief that doesn’t seem to diminish even with overwhelming historical evidence proving the existence of homosexuality on the continent.
My own research on the lives of married same-sex couples is evidence of the continued existence of same-sex couples. There are countless publications about the lives of African queer people, but the leaders of Contralesa want to negate African queer existence.
Chief Nonkonyana uses the notion of “God’s law” as a basis for discriminating against married same-sex couples in the allocation of land in rural areas. The last I checked in South Africa the Constitution is the law and the Rights of LGBTI citizens are protected under the Constitution.
The statements made by Chief Nonkonyana unveil the “contradictions” that emanate from our progressive constitution, where the Rights of LGBTI people are presented as clashing with customary law.
There is a “clash” only because there is a bias and limited reading of “African” culture. It is my view that Chief Nonkonyana has a limited view of “African” when he says same-sex love is “un-African.” It is a construction of same-sex love as outside Africa while we are living evidence that we are inside Africa and African-ness.
With all of that said, I am also wondering if there is an inherent contradiction between “ethnic” and/or “tribal” identity and citizenship. Can one be fully invested in being a good citizen of a country like South Africa, but still be heavily invested in “ethnic” and/or “tribal” identity? Wasn’t the problem with the pre-1994 political dispensation exactly this, a dogmatic investment in white tribalism?
Chief Nonkonyana presents Xhosa culture as something that has never changed as if it’s been static over centuries. While we know that Xhosa culture, like most cultures, is dynamic and ever changing, and how it is interpreted depends on the politics of the day.
Also, what belongs under “Xhosa culture” is practised differently in many parts of the Eastern Cape and parts of the Western Cape and in Xhosa communities that live in Johannesburg. Chief Nonkonyana assumes that we live the same, we love the same, and that the values held by him and Contralesa are the only Xhosa “African” values there are.
Chief Nonkonyana says that by not allocating same-sex couples land he is not “punishing them” but “land is for a married man who has a wife.” If a same-sex couple is denied land in their rural community, of course, they will experience this as punishment. No land allocation has deep consequences for the quality of life for same-sex couples in rural communities, it affects their belonging needs, and it affects the inheritance of their children or other loved ones. The homophobia inherent in the statements by Chief Nonkonyana has material consequences for same-sex couples.
The threat that there will be no allocation of land for same-sex couples is an abuse of power by Contralesa Chiefs. The statements by Chief Nonkonyana unveil a bigger problem of Chief’s running amok in what was previously Bantustans. Chiefs who have appointed themselves sole trustees of communal land oppress people living in rural communities as demonstrated in the documentary This Land.
In This Land we learn that King Goodwill Zwelithini is the sole trustee of land that belongs to the people in Makhaseneni and sold mining rights on the land to Jindal Africa mining company. Soon after the mining began, the land and the water became contaminated and crops started dying. These are people who depend on their land. This has become an all too familiar story in South Africa’s rural communities.
Thiyane Duda, from the Land and Accountability Research Centre in the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, has also written about the problems experienced by local communities in rural areas where chiefs act like they are sole heirs to communal land. The ANC government is complicit, as they do nothing about the dispossession of people in rural areas.
The struggles experienced by same-sex couples in rural communities and the struggles of rural people under corrupt chiefs is linked to the lack of government leadership in the country. The current South African government has failed rural communities over and over again. The statements made by Chief Nonkonyana are in line with the hostility that the South African government treats the poor. What is important for me here is that we recognise that the problem here is not same-sex couples or poor people from rural communities, the problem is corrupt chiefs who are able to oppress people in rural communities because they have support from a corrupt ANC government.
So how do we move on from here? Well, we must fight for the rights of those living in rural communities, and one way of fighting is through participating in the construction of laws that govern rural communities. As South Africans we have a bad record at participating in our own democracy, this needs to change if we are to hold leaders accountable. The Minister for Rural Development and Land Reform has published the Communal Land Tenure Bill and the Explanatory Memorandum for public comment. As members of the public, we are invited to comment on this bill. The bill is open for public comment until 7 September 2017. We must take this opportunity to push for the protection of communal land rights, and also the rights of other marginalised people with respect to land in rural South Africa. The bill can be viewed for comment on the government website http://www.gov.za/documents/communal-land-tenure-bill-draft-7-jul-2017-0000
“No Justice. No Pride.” describe themselves as “collective of organizers and activists” from DC, Washington comprising of “black, brown, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, bisexual, indigenous, two-spirit, formerly incarcerated, disabled, white allies and together” they “recognize that there can be no pride for some without liberation for all.”
Now, Pride disruptions are not new, they have occurred at almost every Pride cycle, the only difference now is that they are getting more publicity. It is perhaps the political climate we find ourselves in, – signified by the election of President Trump in 2016, and the continued murder of black men in the United States by white policeman with no accountability, no justice – that these disruptions are being taken seriously to the point of making the news.
Now as a South African queer person, who is involved in Pride politics in South Africa, the disruptions come as no surprise. In the past I have written about politics of Pride in Cape Town, and in a forth coming special issue of the academic journal Agenda on intersectionality, I have written about the disruption of Johannesburg Pride in 2012. I am interested in the politics of disruption because as a South African I am well versed in the politics of disruption, and my interest in the recent disruptions of Pride Parades is an interest in what disruptions are able to achieve. In light of these disruptions, it is worth thinking seriously about the politics of disruption.
In the past three years South African universities have experienced much disruption. What started with a group of black students calling for the removal of the statue of John Cecil Rhodes in the middle of campus at the University of Cape Town grew to be a national student movement comprising of student disruptions at different universities all over the country. The #RhodesMustFall movement was the catalyst for other #Fall movements, including the recent #FeesMustFall where students have been demanding free education.
What I want to highlight here is the on-going disruptions of university life. The University of Cape Town closed early in 2016 because it couldn’t function because of the #FeesMustFall disruptions. The #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall movements have spurned another movement, #DecoloniseEducation. The student movements have used the methods of disruption to be heard. The methods have been incremental in cases, where there was a march, and then the occupation of buildings, the occupation of classrooms – making it impossible to learn and teach, the closing of entry ways to university grounds, some of the tactics have lead to the destruction of university property. This has lead me, and many South Africans, to think hard about the politics of disruption. Disruption can be described as: to break apart, to cause a rupture, to throw into disorder, to prevent something – a process or a system.
What the student disruptions have done is halt the “everydayness of university life”, to say it is not business as usual. One of the biggest complaints about “change” inside South African universities is how the bureaucratic process – which often includes committee set-up upon committee set-up – is at best sluggish at addressing “change.” The disruptions at the universities have necessitated a new direction, because that’s what disruptions do; when they succeed they make you stop and think of a new way forward.
Of course disruptions are nothing “new” in the South African contexts, anti-apartheid methods involved all kinds of disruptions to fight the apartheid state. So disruptions have been part of South African politics, and with the “new” student movements the politics of disruption continues, and now also Pride parades are grappling with disruptions in 2017. I am interested in what disruptions do? How we think about them and most importantly what are the possibilities created by disruptions?
Bringing the conversation back to the Pride parade disruptions; there seems to be a similar threat running through many of the Pride Parade disruptions. Whether the disruptions took place in DC Washington, or Sea Point, Cape Town, or Toronto, Canada, or Rosebank, Johannesburg, the activists involved in the disruptions are all dissatisfied with the current politics, or lack therefore, of Pride. The activists that have spear headed disruption campaigns demand that Pride be more than just a party on floats. Now, although the demands on Pride parade organisers are slightly different in each particular case of disruption, there are many commonalities. The demands that are being made seem to be centred around:
That Pride does not engage social issues affecting other people within the LGBTI umbrella, people that are not middle-class and white and male and cis. Pride does not centre issues such as racism, gender inequality, Transgender Rights, Immigration Rights, and economic inequality. In the Cape Town context specifically, Cape Town Pride has been critiqued for being exclusive, negating black and coloured LGBTI communities that reside in the Greater Cape Town area.
Particularly in the context of the Israeli and Palestine conflict, Pride, in the Jewish state has been criticised for being a vehicle of Pinkwashing the Human Rights violation in the West Bank. For more on this, Sarah Schulman provides some food for thought.
What is interesting to me with these Pride disruptions is the reactions to these disruptions. Now, I want to speak specifically to the South African context, because it is a context I am living in and therefore interested in, but also because it is a context I am well versed in because of my proximity. The reactions from people within the LGBTI movement to the disruption of Pride parades have been divergent. The disruptions of Johannesburg Pride and Cape Town Pride have caused what one might call Pride Wars, where essentially there are two camps, those who support ideas about a more inclusive and political Pride and those who see nothing wrong with the current structure of Pride.
In the South African context, these two groups are shaped by race, geographical location, economic status, gender, ability, gender identity, and gender performance. In Cape Town Pride, the people who want Cape Town Pride unchanged, who want to keep the organising of the Pride exclusive, they are cis-gendered white men living middle class lives and reside in suburbs of the city. Black and coloured LGBTI people, and some white, mostly female activists are demanding a new direction for Pride, one that is political, one that is inclusive of the different races, genders, and accommodates people who are the working-poor.
Recently, I had a conversation on Facebook about the politics of Pride, and why Cape Town Pride is problematic, and how there is no transparency in how the Cape Town Pride is operated. When prompted on what are the issues are, I responded:
“There is an outright refusal to engage opinions about Pride that differ to the people who are seating on the Pride Board. There is a continued neglect of different ideas of what Cape Town Pride should and/or could be. My friends and I (and other people) have attended some of those Pride meetings in past years to volunteer. The Pride meetings we attended were not about generating ideas about Pride, but how we can help the already existing structures of Pride. We don’t want to just be marshals; we want to be involved in the conceptualising of Pride, where it takes place, theme choosing, the geography of the march, etc. so that we make sure it accommodates more than just white people from Sea Point.
In 2015 a group of activists came up with “Alternative Inclusive Pride” and they asked for inclusivity and openness when it comes to Pride.
There are many unanswered questions about Pride. There is NO transparency.
• Who seats on the Board? Who CAN seat on the board?
• When does the Board vote?
• Who can vote?
• Why are Cape Town Pride meetings not publicly announced so all who are interested can attend? Not just “come and volunteer” meetings when all decisions have already been taken about Pride.
Some of the critiques against Cape Town Pride is that decisions about Pride are taken behind closed doors, and there is no accounting for the said decisions. One of the long-standing issues is the location of Pride. Must Pride always be in Sea Point/Greenpoint? The answer to this question is not so important, but the discussion that leads to that answer is what is important. It cannot be taken for granted that Pride must be in Greenpoint. As if all of Cape Town’s LGBTI people live in the immediate areas.
We can’t pretend that apartheid legacy is not with us. We can’t pretend that there are no structural issues that impede working-poor LGBTI people to attend costly Pride events. We can’t address these issues if we are not at the important meetings.”
Interestingly, my response above was in a thread on my social media account about a recent study that found that racism is endemic amongst gay men. What was interesting was the headline of the article that read, “shocking study finds racism endemic amongst gay men.” My response to the headline was ‘shocking for whom’? I doubt if the Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted Toronto pride would be shocked, I doubt if the One In Nine campaign women who orchestrated the disruption of Johannesburg Pride would be shocked, and I know for a fact that my friends and I and other LGBTI people of colour were not shocked by the results of the study because we all have experienced the racism first hand at gay establishments.
These spaces are marketed as “gay bar”, but really should be marketed as “white gay bar.” The “shocked” headline reads a bit disingenuous because LGBTI people of colour have been decrying the racism within the LGBTI spaces for a long time. There are so many blog posts and op-eds about the racism experienced by people of colour on dating websites and dating apps. Some of these written pieces can be found here, and here, and here.
The fact that this study is “shocking” points to a political problem within LGBTI spaces, a problem of not taking seriously the issues raised by non-white, non-cis, non-male LGBTI people. So the study that reveals the racism, and the subsequent “shock” the study prompts from mostly white LGBTI people, enables one to understand why there are Pride parade disruptions. The ignoring of the demands of certain demographics within the LGBTI movement has become so chronic that it necessitates the disruption of Pride to bring these issues to the fore. The question becomes, of course, how do we move forward after the disruptions.
Well, I imagine there are multiple ways of moving forward, chief amongst those is to have open discussions about the Values of Pride, and be committed to creating a Pride that represents LGBTI people and their concerns as whole as much as possible. Before all of that can take place, Pride organisers need to have a politics, a politics that understands the context in which Pride is taking place.
To be able to understand the context, that is the city – the province – the country, that Pride is taking place means genuinely involving local organisations, local activists, and local lay people in the organising of Pride. When a Pride organising committee consists of only cis-gendered white men, and one black person – for posturing – that committee is off to a really bad start. Having one person of colour in a Pride organising committee does not inclusivity make.
Part of the solution of Pride politics lies in the understanding of intersectionality, and adopting a frame of Pride organising that is not blind to intersectional politics. I have made this argument elsewhere discussing the disruption of Johannesburg Pride, and I will re-enforce the argument here. What Pride needs is an acute understanding of intersectionality. This seems self-explanatory but as we have seen with the continued disruptions of Pride and the continued hostility from Pride organisers, understanding of intersectional politics is lacking.
I use intersectionality in the same vein as Kimberle Crenshaw conceived it; in that it helps us understand that our lives are affected by our social position and our identities. The relative smoothness or the difficulty with which we move in society is because of our identities and social position. We each have multiple social identities, and these social identities intersect with each other to give us unique experiences in the world.
For example, a black gay man and a white gay man although both are men and probably can share stories about experiencing homophobia, they experience the world in different ways because of race. The difference in racial experience intersects with their maleness, and their gayness with divergent results. The racial experiences of these two men translate to having radically different ideas/experiences/feelings about their sexuality and their manhood. This is made more complex if you consider other issues like socio-economic background of the two men, their educational background, their gender performance and expression, and the list goes on. In South Africa this is complicated further by the history of apartheid where economic inequality is distributed along racial lines, and is also gendered.
Why is this important for Pride? Well, it is important for Pride because the Pride disruptions have been centred around the silences on issues affecting different demographics under the LGBTI umbrella. It is important because as Kath Weston once wrote “gender is about race is about class is about sexuality is about age is about nationality is about an entire range of social relations” and the implication is that we can’t bypass these issues in LGBTI Pride if we are serious about inclusivity which are part of the Values of Pride.
Pride organisers don’t seem to care about racism affecting LGBTI people of colour; I mean there’s even a study proving that gay men are racist. Pride organisers don’t seem to care about the working-poor LGBTI people; high non-negotiable entrance fees to Pride events that poor LGBTI people can’t afford demonstrate this. It is when pride organisers understand that South Africa is a post-colonial state with post-colonial issues that we can move forward.
It important that Pride organisers keep in mind that apartheid legacies such as apartheid geography still exist, and so when the decisions are being made about where the Pride parade should be, those decisions should take into account that other LGBTI people do not live in the city centre – and they don’t live in the city centre because of history.
Taking all of this into account, how apartheid legacy shapes South Africa, how gender injustice shapes our society, and how economic inequality is at the core of why Cape Town Pride is mostly white, we begin to see why Pride is experiencing disruptions. It is only when the importance of inclusivity within Pride, the recognition and engagement with “other” people’s struggles along with their sexual identities, will we see and experience a more united Pride.
Somizi Mhlongo is probably South Africa’s most popular gay celebrity, this past weekend he walked out of Grace Bible Church because of homophobic preaching. The pastor at the church was preaching that homosexuality is not found in nature, that dogs and lions do not practise homosexual behaviour. After walking out of the church, Somizi posted videos on his Instagram account talking about his ordeal at the Grace Bible Church. I was surprised that Somizi Mhlongo actually went to church. I am always under the impression that interesting people, worldly people, fabulous people, artists, academics, and generally people who don’t give a f*#% don’t go to church.
Of course, like most homophobes, the Ghanaian Bishop Dag Herward-Mils thought he was being clever, referencing nature as proof of the unnaturalness of homosexuality. The bishop is blithely oblivious to the hundreds of examples of homosexuality in the “natural” world. You can read more about these examples, here, here, and here.
According to Wikipedia “no species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual.” There are hundreds of studies that have debunked this widely held belief that homosexuality is not found in animals, indeed it is thriving in animals.
Also, the idea that “not even animals are homosexual” used by Dag Herward-Mils is based on the assumption that humans are above animals. The notion that we don’t do what animals do because we are better than animals is rubbish. We are a kind of animal. We are part of nature, no matter how far we try and distance ourselves from it. In fact, some environmentalists will argue that it is the problem, that we have distanced ourselves from nature so much and this has lead partly to environmental problems. Humans are not an entity existing outside of nature – we are part of it. The view that sexuality exists on a spectrum has been around since the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s study on “The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male” in 1948. So the varied ways we experience and express our sexuality is part of the human experience. I doubt if Dag Herward-Mils has ever heard of Alfred Kinsey, or any other study about human sexuality for that matter.
I wonder if we show bishop Dag Herward-Mils that homosexual behaviour does exist in animals, will the bishop approve of homosexuality then?
This is not the first time the church in South Africa is implicated in homophobic rhetoric. The church has a history of homophobic speech throughout post-apartheid South Africa. There was the resistance of the inclusion of the protection of sexual orientation against discrimination in the South African constitution. Once the protection of sexual orientation was included in the constitution, there have been a number of talks about having it removed. The church was resistant to same-sex marriage. Church leaders and members of churches have been known to gather at Gay Pride marches in protest of Gay Pride. There was the court case of the lesbian woman that was dismissed by the Methodist Church because she revealed to her congregation that she was marrying her girlfriend. The homophobia in the church has never been shy, and so this incident with Somizi Mhlongo is an incident in a long line of homophobic incidents.
In the past I have written about how I view the church and the construction of Jesus as violence on black people. My views on black people and the church are clear: black people have no business in believing in god and the concept of Jesus. The concept of Jesus is enslavement. It is a concept designed to tame people, to make people unquestioning, to make people passive in their approach to life’s issues because something out there will solve their problems. It is a tool to quell, a tool to create a submissive population of believers instead of agitators. Therefore my view on black queers and the church is the same: black queers have no business in attending church and believing in the imported story of Jesus.
The most important question for me in this whole Grace Bible Church saga is: what are black queers doing at church? What is Somizi doing attending Grace Bible Church? Grace Bible Church has a “statement of faith” on their website that reads:
“With regards to sexual behaviour, we believe in heterosexual relationships between a natural man and a natural woman within the confines of lawful matrimony. Adherence to this stated principle of sexual behaviour is an inherent requirement of membership of Grace Bible Church.”
In other words, this is a place that has made it clear that it does not want Somizi. In one of the Instagram videos posted by Somizi, he laments that the church must state clearly that it does not want, or like LGBTI people. The “statement of faith” is a clear indication that the church does not endorse LGBTI people. It is clear to me in this statement that Somizi was never welcomed at this church. What is puzzling to me is not that the church is homophobic, that is expected, what I am struggling with is why did it take him so long to realize the church hates him. Why does he think THIS church won’t be homophobic when homophobia and other forms of discrimination are the bedrock of the church?
Let me be clear here, even if the church didn’t have this statement, I would still ask the same question: what are black queers doing at church?
I really wasn’t interested in engaging the Grace Bible Church “debate” but the violence of the church on black queers necessitates that I write this.
I have attended the funerals of black queers in South Africa. I have had conversations with my black queer friends about the omission of not only the sexual orientation of diseased black queers, but the omission of life partners, all to save face for the church.
I have seen black bishops like Dag Herward-Mils who preach homophobic hate on the Sunday sermon, but don’t make the connection of the hate they preach to the brutal often fatal violence experienced by black queers, particularly gender non-conforming black queers. The black queers who have survived physical and sexual assaults have told stories of how the perpetrators use the language of “not even dogs do this” or “this is the way God intended it.” With this in mind, I find the statements made by the Grace Bible Church spokesperson Ezekiel Mathole when interviewed by Eusebius McKaiser deplorable. To speak about the homophobic position of the church as if it doesn’t have consequences for people is irresponsible. This is not only irresponsible for Grace Bible Church, but it is irresponsible for all churches in South Africa.
The church in South Africa gets away with murder with being able to preach homophobic hate, and then turn around and call it their “biblical view”, their scripture, while black bodies are mutilated by people using the same rhetoric as the church. The homophobic taunts and jeers that black queers experience on a daily basis are partly born in the church rhetoric. The people who violate us are granted permission and then immunity by the church because people have “the right to believe” their homophobia and to preach their hate speech according to Mr. Ezekeil Mathole.
In South Africa there is a fear of the church. There is often a quiet diplomacy on the wrong doings of the church. The church has too much power in this country. The constitutional ruling on the case of the lesbian Methodist preacher who was let go from her post after she announced intention to marriage is indicative of the power of the church. Even the Constitutional Court shies away from calling the church into order. I am not going to be silenced by the church. What bishop Dag Herward-Mils said at Grace Bible Church is hate speech. That type of speech has no place in a constitutional democracy, in a country that’s recovering from a history of discrimination.
As I have shared before, I find it puzzling that black people are united in the idea of fighting against white imperialism, but do not see the church and the construction of Jesus as part and parcel of white colonial ideology. Jesus, just like Jan Van Riebeeck came on a ship. Jesus might as well have been on the Dromedaris. The concept of Jesus is as foreign as the Jacaranda tree in South Africa. As far as I am concerned, you are not serious about anti-colonial politics if the construction of Jesus remains intact. In fact, I don’t think anti-colonial politics can work with the ideology of believing in a white God and white Jesus that black people are supposed to pray to and submit themselves. The psychological calamity is of epic proportions. You don’t have to go far for evidence of the church madness; black people are eating grass, and drinking petrol for salvation. There is video evidence of this madness, here and here. The one that really gets me is the buckets of money; I mean literally buckets of money black people give to the church.
The church is a place of hate production. The venom that has also been unleashed by churchgoers on social media platforms in the aftermath of the Grace Bible Church incident is indicative of the hate. The homophobic statements uttered by Dag Herward-Mils are the kind of statements the church thrives on. The statements are not shocking, they are something we expect from the church, which is why the church is not a place for black queers, and not a place for blacks in general. Black people need to abandon the church. Black people need to abandon the fictitious idea of Jesus.
As for Somizi Mhlongo, he has an interesting life and doesn’t need Grace Bible Church. He is probably South Africa’s best choreographer and certainly the most famous gay South Africa celebrity, and I think he should follow in Kathy Griffin’s famous footsteps and tell bishop Dag Herward-Mils “Jesus can suck it.”