It is hard to imagine what the debate around gay rights was like before South Africa became the first country in the world to guarantee equality for gay people in its constitution. It was not the impossible happening: it was the unthinkable. It instantly transformed what gay people across the world thought that they could ask for: not piecemeal accommodation and scraps from the table, but rights as equal citizens. That road from South Africa’s constitutional Equality Clause (and subsequent court ruling for full gay marriage – not qualified civil partnerships) has led directly not to a request for marriage equality, but a global insistence on it.
But it would be wrong to think of Tata Mandela as only a symbol of freedom and equality for gay rights in South Africa when in fact he was our founding story.
In 1962, gay identity and political struggle famously came together when Mandela was on the run from the Apartheid government. Mandela evaded capture for so long largely because he posed as the chauffeur of Cecil Williams, a gay white communist theatre director, thus enabling him to move around the country and mobilise the masses. The African National Congress (ANC) always felt a debt to Williams, and could not divorce his political action from (what was then) his personal identity. This was one of the threads that started the conversation on gay rights within the liberation movement, and which continued – often boisterously – in prison cells, picket lines and detention centres as the final push against Apartheid started in the 1980s.
Furthermore, Mandela’s insistence on equality for all during his speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial (where he was sentenced to life imprisonment) gave democratic gay rights activists a political language as we toyi-toyied and picketed and worked and struggled in the 1980s, adamant that lived equality also meant that gay rights were human rights.
What is now a global movement for equality started for us as township activists and children trying to carve out a place of humanity in a system that denied it to us. By taking Mandela as a reference point, we could move beyond the small practices of comfort that we had carved out in our brutal lives, where parents and aunties nurtured their gay children and then sent them out into the world to fight for freedom. My grandmother raised her pastor’s lesbian daughter after her mother died, and when she married another woman 30 years ago, their family always occupied pride of place in our home.
When I joined the gay rights movement in my early teens, it was the township povo and our grandmothers, mothers and aunties who first supported us as we became children of Mandela at picket lines, freedom marches and in torture chambers. Then, as the momentum around gay rights during the anti-Apartheid struggle grew, it were these people who made the food, provided the beds to sleep in and put our broken, tortured bodies back together again as we escalated the fight.
The insistence on gay rights as part of South Africa’s fight for equality was a long, difficult struggle, for which anti-Apartheid activists showed up to be counted: at the Delmas Treason Trial, the anti-conscription campaigns, the UDF, the underground MK cells, on Robben Island and in the torture chambers, picket lines and searing song of crowds marching on the army and police. It was a belief that if we kept working, teaching and engaging in our national freedomsong, it was possible that we would get recognition at most, and non-discrimination protection at best. What we did receive after liberation – happily and proudly from Tata Mandela and his comrades – was the impossible suddenly made mundane.
It was a long walk that has not ended, as we find out how much we are still living our 400 years of colonialism, fascism with undertows of Nazism, various periods of slavery, extreme social engineering and exploitation. The triumph of gay rights and the legacy of Cecil Williams standing up with Mandela is not unchallenged by the need to end the murder of young township lesbians, or our obligation to provide refuge to gay Africans fleeing for their lives.
And as we prepare to say goodbye to Tata Mandela, it’s fitting that his passing will be seconded in this year’s headlines by the struggle and towering sacrifice of three gay men who stood tall and did the right thing: Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda.
The spark that Mandela and Cecil Williams started in 1962 has shown us that extreme political sacrifice, the fight for freedom and the insistence on equality has always been a question of love. And as I write this with love, exuberance and tears, it is Nina Simone singing so poignantly in the background: the King of Love is dead. DM
Karen Williams is a South African journalist who works across Africa and Asia.