South Africa’s townships still not safe for gay, lesbian and transgender people

LGBTI activists protest the lack of progress in the investigation into Noxolo Nogwaza's murder in KwaThema © EPOC

This year at Belfast Pride, Amnesty International campaigned on behalf of South African lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights defender Noxolo Nogwaza. She was raped and murdered in April 2011 in KwaThema in South Africa. There has been no proper investigation into her killing and many people on the Belfast Pride parade signed our campaign postcards to the South African police commander responsible for the case.

This guest blog is from Bontle Khalo, another LGBTI rights activist in KwaThema — a township once known as a haven for the gay community but recently marred by a spate of hate crimes against them. Khalo is a full-time volunteer for the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee (EPOC), which she co-founded in 2009. Thanks, Patrick Corrigan.

The murders were not too far apart. Girly Nkosi was in 2009, Eudy Simelane was 2008.  Before that, I wouldn’t say I was an activist, I also didn’t know very much about LGBTI issues. I just knew I was a lesbian woman.

The first reaction was fear. And shock. We didn’t know that things like that could happen here in a very close-knit community, a very small community where LGBTI people felt free to be open and outspoken. We also didn’t know the term “hate crime”. It was never something that we really experienced. 

That fear soon became anger. And we were determined to do something about it. We didn’t know exactly what. But we knew the feeling that we had, the fear and the anger, that we don’t ever want to feel that way again.

We spoke about doing the Ekurhuleni Pride march basically to hand over a memorandum to the KwaThema police station, asking them to do something about these murders. But then soon afterwards, the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee was formed, and the Pride march became an annual event.

We got involved with a lot of community dialogues. We would go to the street, we would go to schools, we would go to clinics, and I think after that we had a sense that things are getting better. We felt that people were a lot more educated about LGBTI issues. And then Noxolo was killed.

It was very heartbreaking. I remember feeling like the work we were doing was not enough at that time. I think for our fellow members as well there was just, you know, a feeling… we hoped that things had changed. Knowing that this has happened again. It was a terrible feeling.

People were outraged. We would have people coming to the office saying that they wanted to do something about this. A lot of people wanted justice, wanted answers, wanted something to be done. We had support from people who were not part of the LGBTI community. People are willing to do something although they don’t know what because the police are not being helpful with the situation and I don’t think they are doing enough to ensure these perpetrators are found. People are still eager to help us out and to help us find answers.

I think when people look at South Africa they assume, ‘oh South Africa is such a wonderful place to be a lesbian or a gay person’ but that’s not the reality of it. There is still a lot of discrimination and intolerance that has not been addressed and lots of work that still needs to be done, particularly in the townships.

Even in Cape Town townships there have been a lot of crimes, a lot of murders and there have been a lot of rapes. The statistics there are shocking.

If you are a black lesbian, gay or transgender person living in the township it’s still not safe; you still kind of brace yourself, because black people still have a lot of misconception.

Men in particular still have lot of hate and anger about LGBTI issues for lesbians.

My personal feeling is that a lot of men felt emasculated, I don’t think they agreed with the notion that women were in relationships with each other and were so vocal about these relationships.

I think in the early 70s, organizations like GLOW (Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand) were headed by gay men. I don’t think people had a problem with gay men, because they were so out there and so flamboyant. It was just all fun and games for people and they felt comfortable with that.

When lesbian women started to come out more and more, I guess men didn’t feel comfortable with that. Not in the way they just ignored gay men or took it as a joke or whatever.

I think after Noxolo’s murder a lot of people had a lot of fear. That’s when people said that they didn’t feel comfortable socialising at night, they didn’t feel comfortable with going to certain places. Noxolo’s murderers are still out there, somewhere. What happened to Noxolo can be repeated because we don’t know who they are.

We have received a lot of support from other LGBTI organisations in South Africa but it means a huge to deal to know that the whole world is also behind us and that they are supporting the work that we are doing and that they want something to be done about Noxolo’s case.

Since we’ve partnered with Amnesty we have learnt a huge deal from them and it made our work so much easier. Really, from the bottom of our hearts, it means a lot.

We are going to ensure that we do as much as we can to make sure we live in the kind of society we would like to live in. We are going to work very very hard towards that.