Thank you for the introduction. I also want to thank [the] team for organizing this conference and for the opportunity to be here. I will be learning a great deal from taking part in this conference and meeting so many of my peers.
“Bring her out, we want to show her that she is a woman,” demanded a group of 20 men. They wanted Bev Ditsie to come out of her family home in Soweto. It was after they saw her on TV making a speech at the first gay and lesbian pride march in 1990. This is the same year that Mandela came out of prison and there was such euphoria and anticipation for freedom for all.
The phrase “rainbow nation” was coined by the archbishop Desmond Tutu after the first democratic election in 1994. The term captures and celebrates the diversity of all South Africans. This is also in line with our constitution, which [is] one of the most progressive in the world as it protects the rights of all its citizens, including the rights of lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people.
My organization, the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), is an activist organization and it is one of the 11 funded LGBT organizations, and these are concentrated in the main urban centers of the country. FEW was established by black lesbian women activists living in Johannesburg in 2001. In a post-1994 South Africa and with the new constitution of 1996 recognizing sexual orientation within the equality clause, it was clear that we had to organize ourselves to ensure that we were able to claim and live the rights entrenched in the constitution. Already, with increasing numbers of LGBTI people coming out and being visible both in everyday life as well as within human rights defending work, the age-old issues of discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization were becoming more blatant.
South African society is deeply unequal in all respects – economic, social, and political – and we have an embedded culture of violence. South Africa is the rape capital of the world and it is heartbreaking that only one in nine women reports the rape to the police. It can take a year or more to finalize a case and we have a conviction rate of just below 5%. In the hands of the police, lesbians suffer secondary victimizations; they are asked questions like, “How do lesbians have sex?” and “Did you enjoy having sex with the rapist?” We are black, we are women, and we are lesbian and often the intersectionality of our race, class, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation renders us targets of homophobia and patriarchy. These two systems impose control on our bodies, our relationships, our households, and our communities.
In practice, this means that the lives of women are regulated and controlled and, in the case of those of us who are viewed as deviant women, this control and resistance is even more evident as our identities defy patriarchal norms and are viewed as an even greater threat to men’s power and control over women. In South Africa, this manifests in the following ways:
Firstly, young black lesbian women are forced out of school due to the danger of getting to school and the violations by learners and educators, as well as the system of school governance itself, which is generally conservative and patriarchal.
A quantitative study conducted by the Joint Working Group in 2004 found that...
• 13% experienced sexual abuse/rape
• 30% experienced physical abuse
• 56% experienced verbal abuse
In direct response to this reality, we started the Keep Us In campaign aimed at advocating for access to sustained quality education in an accepting environment for young black lesbian women in state schools so that “forcing out” from school can end. Two years ago, when I ran these workshops in schools, one of the exercises for learners in groups was to create a poster supporting human rights of vulnerable groups in society. I suggested to one of groups that on their poster they should write "no" to lesbian rape. A 14-year-old boy gently responded, “No ma’am, we are not raping them. We just want to show them the right way.”
Secondly, black lesbian women are thrown out of their family homes by relatives who are homophobic and are isolated and marginalized by community members. Black lesbian women, particularly those living in townships, are subjected to hate crimes, including physical assault, verbal abuse, [and] sexual assault, including rape and, increasingly, murder.
Zoliswa Nkonyane, a 19-year-old lesbian, was murdered on a Saturday afternoon in 2006, in Cape Town. Zoliswa has just finished soccer practice and is walking home with a friend when she is stopped by a young woman who starts mocking them. The woman tells them they are tomboys asking to be raped. “We are not tomboys,” says Zoliswa. “We are lesbians. We are just doing our things, so leave us alone.” The woman goes to a nearby sheeben – tavern – and comes back with 20 young men. Zoliswa’s friend wants to run away, but Zoliswa stands her ground. “This is my area,” she says. “Why should I go?” The young men start hitting them. Zoliswa’s friend manages to get away, but the boys caught up with Zoliswa outside her home. They punched and kicked her, they threw bricks at her and hit her with a golf club. Zoliswa later died in hospital of her injuries. Nine men were arrested and the case is still not finalized.
On the 7th of July, 2007, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were murdered and, sadly, no one was arrested. In 2008, Eudy Simelane, who was a player in national women’s soccer team, was murdered. Thato Mpithi is the only one who pleaded guilty out of the five who were arrested. The state failed us again when the prosecutor failed to show the court that the murder was hate-motivated. In sentencing Mpithi, the judge was very lenient as he considered Mpithi’s socioeconomic conditions and he was sentenced only 31 years in prison. Then it was Thokozane, FannyAnn, Gugu, Daisy, Lorna… and many others. It could have been me. A month back, we buried Nokuthula Radebe and two weeks ago we buried Noxola Nogwaza, who was brutally raped and murdered.
The murders of Zoliswa Nkonyana, and so many others, is a reminder of the dangers of being open in what officially a free and open society
Since the adoption of our constitution in 1996, a progressive and activist court has put in place all our rights regardless [of the] fact that there is no general public support. Some argue that the LGBTI suffer the backlash mainly because of that. I also attribute this hostility to the recent growth of religious and traditional fundamentalism.
Our concern of losing the ground we have already gained is justifiable, as recently we have seen regression by our government. At first, it was the appointment of a well-known homophobe, Jon Qwelane, as the South African ambassador in Uganda. This simply meant our government endorses the direction stance that Uganda is taking on homosexuality. On the international stage, like the UN and AU, South Africa has let us down as they have failed to stand proudly as a nation that has specified sexual orientation as no grounds for discrimination. We need to stand together and fight the repressive laws against homosexuality in Africa. In South, we have [a] good legal framework but there is no social justice. LGBTI rights are human rights; they are not separable. The world can no longer afford to fold arms and watch the killings and violations of LGBTI people’s human rights.
“Social justice will only be achieved in South by the ongoing efforts and struggle of all of us. We can rejoice that the law no longer represses and that the constitution maps the way forward. But the constitution is only the beginning. Achieving its vision is the task that lies ahead.”