Opinionista Kellyn Botha 29 September 2020

Transgender activists’ interaction with Home Affairs over identity documents a step in the right direction

Transgender activists were surprised by the openness of the Department of Home Affairs during a recent meeting with minister Aaron Motsoaledi. But now tangible steps toward policy reform need to be made.

Kellyn Botha

Kellyn Botha is a trans woman and human rights activist living in Johannesburg, South Africa. She works as a Communications Consultant for Iranti – a Johannesburg-based NGO advocating for the rights of lesbian, transgender and intersex persons in the region. She is also completing her MA in Film Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, researching the ways in which trans women are portrayed in cinema; and is conducting legal research for the Geneva-based ILGA World.

When transgender activists set out to meet Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi earlier in September, we were prepared for a fight.

The department – long considered a house of horrors by transgender and gender-diverse South Africans – had deemed services vital to us to be “non-essential” during lockdown.

The expected conflict did not come. Our coalition of 11 transgender activist groups had a surprisingly fruitful discussion with officials. Is it possible that despite the dysfunction and apathy for which his department is known, Motsoaledi is actually on our side?

The meeting was initiated after the publication of survey findings by Johannesburg-based advocacy organisation, Iranti, accompanied by an open letter to Motsoaledi.

The survey sought to determine what impact the Department of Home Affair’s Covid-19 response had on transgender and gender-diverse South Africans. The findings made for unsettling reading: the amendment of forenames and gender-markers had been put on hold, meaning that many respondents were left with identity documents that didn’t accurately reflect their day-to-day presentation.

Others who had applied for amendments prior to lockdown were stuck in limbo with no legal identity to speak of, and subsequently unable to apply for bank loans, schooling, driving licences or housing.

Most respondents noted that they had faced some form of physical or verbal abuse, or medical, employment and schooling discrimination as a result of their being “outed” with inaccurate documentation.

These issues are not new for transgender and gender-diverse communities – the standard waiting time for gender-marker changes can be anywhere from a few weeks to well over a year, depending on how generous the local Home Affairs clerk is feeling, and how efficient the processing centre in Pretoria is. 

During a global pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, however, a demographic already disproportionately living below the poverty line and exposed to stigma and violence was put in an even more precarious situation.

Having responded positively to the findings, Motsoaledi and his staff agreed to meet the coalition representatives when it was clear that the easing of restrictions was not enough to solve the systemic issues our community faced.

We presented the report findings to Motsoaledi, director-general Jackson McKay and a host of other officials, as well as broader concerns from our constituents.

We noted that the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act 49 of 2003 was flawed on several grounds, including that it runs against the growing consensus that self-identification of gender identity is more ethical than holding legal recognition of trans persons behind a barrier of inaccessible medical interventions.

Act 49 also doesn’t hold provisions for the adoption of policies around how to implement it. The lack of standardised practice, and lack of policy around Act 49, was identified as a core issue to be dealt with.

Motsoaledi noted that the amendment of Act 49 and other long-term goals would require further debate and meetings between our parties. More immediate commitments were made, however, to address the systemic delays faced by trans persons, the implementation of standard operating procedures to ensure a consistent level of service across the country, and the training and sensitisation of Department of Home Affairs staff.

These items, agreed to in a joint statement, lay the foundations for a continued partnership between the Department of Home Affairs and transgender community.

Global trends show that engagements such as this are more important than ever. In Poland, for example, many places have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”, while the Hungarian government has undone the legal process by which trans persons amend their identities. 

Russia’s authoritarian policies aimed at curtailing the rights of LGBTI persons; the growing harassment of trans individuals in the British media; and of course the violence and criminalisation many LGBTI people face across Africa – makes South Africa one of the few bulwarks against the global trend of dismantling the legal and social protections of marginalised groups. It is far from perfect, but it is something.

As a trans-rights activist, I know some will be critical of this endeavour. Perhaps some will be vehemently opposed to any talk of gender-diversity. The reality is that we are here and our identities are valid, regardless of what anyone might think.

While I cannot speak to the issues which impact so many other South Africans at the Department of Home Affairs, I can affirm from my brief interaction with the minister that, on paper, his meeting with our coalition was “part of the minister’s commitment to engage constructively with all stakeholders in order to improve service delivery”.

We have a long way to go before all transgender and gender-diverse persons have access to their rights as enshrined in the Constitution. But having our grievances heard by Home Affairs will, hopefully, prove to be a step in the right direction.

We must remain vigilant, however, and remind minister Motsoaledi that should our needs not be met, we will not be silent. DM

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