Being gay and Zulu

‘He called me over to his house on my way back from the shop and asked me: ‘Do you think you can run faster than me?’ I didn’t answer and started walking away, then he grabbed me and pulled me inside and forced himself on me.” Khensani Mbokazi, a 23-year-old pre-op transsexual currently with a male body, was raped at 15 by her father’s friend. She was too scared to tell her parents of the rape, for fear of their response.

A year later, Khensani’s father kicked her out of the family home: ‘My father heard about it because the whole Umlazi community were talking about it. They were saying that I seduced [my rapist] because I was so desperate for a man. My father said that when I was born he thought his son was a real Zulu man who would one day bring a wife into his home. I didn’t want to hurt my family, so I left,” says Mbokazi.

‘Messaging” on gay issues, especially from Zulu leaders, is hurting young Zulus who are both in and out of the closet, believes Nonhlanhla Mkhize, manager of the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre.

The centre, which counsels people who are uncertain about their sexual orientation, is the only one of its kind in KwaZulu-Natal. It sees more than 200 people a week, mainly Zulu men between the ages of 12 and 35, but some as old as 65.

Mkhize says utterances like those of ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma at Heritage Day celebrations in KwaDukuza were affecting the psychology of gay Zulu-speakers. Zumu said that when he was growing up ‘an ungqingili [gay man] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”

Such statements fuel intolerance with sometimes violent repercussions, including hate crimes such as rape.

Between 2001 and 2003, says Mkhize, the centre identified 65 cases of rape, 23 of which were hate crimes. In such cases ‘the rapist or rapists were explicit about their motives, saying the gay person was raped to cure them, to make them more of a man or a woman”.

Mbokazi believes her rape, at 15, was a hate crime. ‘He didn’t want to make love to me, he wanted to prove that he could change me and that I shouldn’t act like this because this sort of thing will keep happening to me,” she said.

Zuma’s homophobic sentiments follow a string of statements by Zulu leaders based on the alleged nature of Zulu culture and the idea that homosexuality is an alien practice imported by European colonialists.

In his address at the annual reed dance in Nongoma last year, King Goodwill Zwelithini referred to homosexuality as a ‘problem” and said: ‘The Zulu nation will not be this big, with millions of people, if there was the problem of gay people that we have today. This new behaviour is quickly becoming a threat in our nation because it encourages people not to have proper families that have children.

‘We have a huge responsibility as a nation to teach our children to distance themselves from homosexuality.”

In 2001, eThekwini (Durban) mayor, Obed Mlaba, said in the context of tourism competition between eThekwini and Cape Town: ‘We should stop comparing ourselves to cities like Cape Town. In fact, Cape Town can stay with its moffies and its gays.”

Behind the Mask’s Wendy Landau, who researches human rights violations against gays and lesbians in sub-Saharan Africa, says it is ‘common practice” for government officials, politicians and church people in Southern Africa to voice homophobic sentiments, adding: ‘The homophobia spewed by the sub-Saharan media is also unbelievable.”

Vasu Reddy, chief research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council’s gender and development unit, remarked that Zuma’s utterances were ‘tantamount to hate speech” and that the notion of gay identity being un-African, spouted by many political leaders, was aimed at denying the fact of homosexuality among Africans.

‘Essentialising the African experience to the exclusion of other practices is really about underlying homophobia and disrespect for people’s identity,” Reddy said.

Mkhize also emphasised the assault on people’s struggle to find themselves: ‘It becomes difficult for young people — those who are out and those still trying to identify who they are — to be proud of who they are.

‘When the king, considered the custodian of Zulu culture, says that being gay is not part of Zulu culture, people start to ask: ‘Maybe I am wrong to believe I’m gay? Am I confused? Maybe being gay is an import?’ These questions can have a devastating effect on someone who believes they have settled their identity problems.”

According to a survey by NGO Out and the Unisa Centre for Applied Psychology, Levels of Empowerment among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in KwaZulu-Natal, the less comfortable people are with their sexual identity, the more likely they are to suffer depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal thinking. It found that black gays and lesbians in KwaZulu-Natal reported the highest frequency of ‘always” or ‘often” thinking about suicide.

The survey found that religious and cultural pressures, as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and attacks on property all had an impact on how comfortable uncloseted gays were with their sexual orientation and identity.

Cindi Buthelezi (not her real name), a 29-year-old dancer who grew up in Mkwalume on the south coast, says that coming out to her Christian family was extremely difficult because of religious and cultural prejudice. ‘Because of our culture and our religion, a lot of people are not aware, or don’t have knowledge, of what it means to be a lesbian. I am scared of my family and their reaction.”

In her family of 11 siblings, only one sister and her son knew of her sexual leanings.

Said 21-year old student Mdu Ntuli, who grew up in the Durban township of Umlazi: ‘Zulu society doesn’t want to recognise gays. We are on the margins of society and sometimes to survive we have to act straight.”

Ntuli says he is openly gay, but affects being straight whenever he returns to the township. Being gay is more acceptable in Durban but he still encounters homophobia in the city. He remembers walking past a taxi rank with his lover, ‘wearing these really skimpy, sexy shirts”, and being called ‘istabane — a horrible, horrible word for gays”.

Mkhize recounts how a lesbian couple tried to register an adopted child with the department of home affairs: ‘The response from officials was: ‘Are you crazy? How can two women be the parents of this child?’

‘That is how we have been socialised and the new legal frameworks will not be enough, unless we tackle perceptions in society,” she said.

Zuma may have alienated gay voters, but Reddy is certain he has appealed to ‘the paranoias and anxieties” of many South Africans, especially considering the vitriol emerging from public hearings on the Civil Unions Bill.

And, while the Constitution entrenches freedom of sexual orientation, its impact on attitudes seems to have been minimal. ‘Rights are wonderful; we have wonderful jurisprudence and legal protection, but those amount to nothing if they don’t come with justice,” says Reddy.

The Out study found that 49% of respondents believed public perceptions of lesbian and gay people had not changed since the Constitution took effect, with 35% unsure.

Only 31% of respondents felt comfortable with being open about their sexual orientation because the Constitution protected their rights, and only 25% felt their constitutional rights were being put into practice.

‘Constitutional education hasn’t really been carried out in this country,” says Mkhize. ‘We’ve done work in rural KwaZulu-Natal, and you can go to places like Ulundi and talk about human rights, but there the Constitution is a government document — the king’s rule is considered supreme,” she said.

She insisted that the problem was not Zulu culture in the narrow way it had been interpreted — and manipulated for political purposes.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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