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.