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‘Go back to the townships’ – the shame of gay South Africa


Mark Heywood is a social justice activist and former Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director and founder of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life. He has also advised Change Starts Now and Rise Mzansi on issues of social justice.

At Joburg Pride, the fight between Pride organisers and activists from the One in Nine campaign made headlines all over the country. Now, as the Out in Africa film festival opens, it seems the celebrations are back and the previous scuffle is over. But it shouldn’t be. 

I had the privilege of attending, and speaking at, the recent opening of the Out in Africa film festival – a cinematic celebration of identify and freedom.

To fully appreciate how momentous this kind of celebration is, one has to look in context of the history of the gay and lesbian movement in South Africa. Space will not allow a full explanation of that now; however, what is important is that interestingly (but not accidentally), gays and lesbians were one of the first marginalised and discriminated against groups of people to benefit from South Africa’s Constitutional dispensation. 

The inclusion of the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender in the Equality clause (section 9 of the Constitution) was a historic advance, celebrated worldwide. It led to the striking down of archaic laws, bringing about the decriminalisation of sodomy and later to the right of same-sex couples to marry. 

This simple change took South Africa from one of the most repressive societies to one of most progressive in space of a decade. It proved that our Constitution is more than just promise.

However, I said that these progressive developments were not accidental for a reason. It is crucial to recall that firstly, it was achieved through the campaigns of gay and lesbian people who came from marginalised and poverty-stricken communities to fight for freedom – people like Simon Nkoli, Zackie Achmat, Bev Ditsie, Edwin Cameron, Phumi Mthetwa and many others. Secondly, and even more importantly, we all benefited from the people who fought and died for the Constitution, because they were fighting for freedom generally.

Today we have “freedom”, but we cannot be truly free in an unfree society. 

I therefore want to talk about how we can reignite that sense of solidarity and empathy that infuses our history, and argue that it has to restored in our present. There needs to two solidarities: solidarity between marginalised communities; and solidarity within this community. 

I don’t want to lecture, but it is generally acknowledged that this is a time of a growing social and political crisis in our country. Marikana is not an isolated incident, but is linked to the crime of inequality, the crisis of unemployment, and deteriorating social conditions in health and basic education. 

For the last 18 years the poorest of the poor have delayed their demands for a better life. They have postponed their own legitimate claims with the trust that a government and society that is reconstructed along the lines of the Constitution, will get to meet their basic needs. Their trust was in you, as much as it was in the government. That trust is being betrayed.

But now has come a time when conditions are so intolerable that they cannot wait any longer. Consequently the poor are demanding, in the words of Martin Luther King, that the “promissory notes” of the Constitution, “the cheques”, are cashed in. It is a time when the poor:

“refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt… refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this cheque, a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

The message I want to deliver is that gay and lesbian people, indeed people of any and every gender and sexual preference, need to stand shoulder to shoulder with this movement, and to nudge – no, to drive – society towards the resolution of the great crises of our time. 

The question is how? 

That should not be a difficult question to answer. By active citizenry in every sphere of our lives; by respect for others’ dignity. If we do not do that, the gains we celebrate will be washed away, or be vulnerable little islands to a tsunami of anger and despair. And believe me, there is nothing inherently sacrosanct about the Constitution, about our rights. Indeed, there are despots waiting to seize advantage of the legitimate anger that is welling up in our society. We have already heard the rumblings from the likes of Patakile Holomisa who has made public his views that the equality clause should be amended to remove sexual orientation.

So, we need to demonstrate solidarity with the poor. But we also need solidarity within the gay community – as diverse as it may be. 

We were free in Hyde Park for the opening of the film festival, but our brothers and sisters were not free in Katlehong. Some of the wealthier members of the gay community are free in their security estates, but are not free or safe outside of walled mansions, where hate crimes of ‘corrective rape’, murder and intimidation have free rein. 

On December 18th, it will be a year since the brutal murder of Jason Wessenar. Jason’s killing had the hall-marks of a hate crime. But still there have been no convictions and little evidence of a proper investigation by the police. Why are we silent about this denial of justice?

In this context, I cannot avoid commenting on the appalling assault (for that is what it was) at Jo’burg Gay Pride on October 6th. The One in Nine Campaign was brave and right to organise a small act of civil disobedience. Few more than 20 brave women were justified in trying to bring the pain and despair of 20,000 or 200,000 (we do not know) silenced ‘others’ to the party. 

But in response, the behaviour of the bigots mirrored the behaviour of bigotry everywhere. 

This was not the type of behaviour that we see celebrated in the films screened at Out in Africa, or in the representations of gay culture at other celebratory events. There is a reason for this: it has to be condemned. We must restore the traditions of activism, assertion and equality. That is not to deny the right to identity or celebration, but to demand and live it.

So, if we are true to ourselves, we should do exactly what one bigot demanded. We should in fact “go back to the townships” and work to make sure freedom reigns everywhere in South Africa. DM


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