Final march of a peaceful soldier

It is dusk on Friday April 29, the eve of 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza’s funeral. KwaThema is smoky from cooking fires and there’s a snap of Highveld winter in the air. Then, the singing. Just a suggestion, from way off, but growing stronger and stronger.

Here they come. About 50 young men and women, toyi-toying down the street towards the Nogwaza family home. They carry a flag that glows with rainbow colours and the words of their song ring out: “uNoxolo akalelang” — Noxolo is not sleeping. The song weaves itself into an anthem for a new struggle: “Even if they beat us, even if they rape us, we are moving forward.”

Nogwaza’s friends from the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee (Epoc) have arrived to show her community — and her murderers — that they will not be mourning their sister behind closed doors.

Who was Noxolo Nogwaza? Family members, neighbours and fellow activists share their stories. Memory by memory, a picture emerges. Strong in physique and gentle in spirit, Nogwaza lived for soccer and dreamed of managing her own women’s team. She was quiet but sparky, with an infectious giggle. She would greet everyone in vibey township taal: e-Joe! and Wola! No wonder they called her Brenda Fassie.

Her close friend, Thuli, had another nickname for her: “iSoja”, the soldier. “She always had my back,” says Thuli, describing how Nogwaza would protect her and other gay and lesbian comrades when they were confronted by homophobic taunts and threats on the streets of KwaThema.

To some members of the Nogwaza family, she was simply their daughter: a single mother of two small kids, always ready to help with household chores. Definitely “not a lesbian”. But most people remember how confident she was about her sexuality: how she would laughingly declare “I love being a boy!”

One childhood friend, describes her lightning speed at street soccer: “She was a star. She was better than some of the guys.”

The civilised child
Nogwaza’s uncle, Phila, was called to identify his niece’s brutalised body in the early hours of Easter Sunday. She had been thrown into a ditch just metres from a house where the occupants must have heard her screams, but were, perhaps, too terrified to come to her rescue. “She was like my own child,” said her uncle.

Elderly neighbour Bab’ Mahlangu watched Nogwaza grow up “right under my eyes”. The last time he saw her was on the day she died. There had been a family gathering at the Nogwaza home and she met him in the street outside and gave him R10 to buy himself something to drink. For him she will always be “umtwana ohloniphekile“, a civilised child.

At 8am on Saturday, the day of the funeral, a group gathers close to KwaThema taxi rank, just down the road from Bar Lounge — the tavern where Nogwaza spent her last evening. In front of them is the shallow ditch where her body was found. They have come to speak to her spirit and bring Nogwaza back home for the funeral service.

Noxolo Nogwaza

Family members approach the simple coffin and lift it into the car; others follow on foot. “It’s not OK; it’s not OK,” a young woman says, almost to herself. She tells me that she is a lesbian. That she is a victim of “corrective rape”, carried out by a gang of men who have never been identified. Today’s funeral has brought back the nightmare of it all.

“But luckily, I got a chance to escape,” she says. “Not like Noxolo.”

By now there are more than 100 people in the procession: close friends and gay rights activists, many of whom have travelled far to be here. Among them is Funeka Soldaat, director of Free Gender in Khayelitsha. She’s disappointed at the low turnout of local people. Across the street a woman is sweeping her stoep, as if it’s just another day. “Do you see how the community just stands back and watches?” asks Soldaat. “Noxolo was one of their children. The family of KwaThema have lost one of their own.”

At the house a priest begins the service with a prayer. Tears stream down his face as he pleads with God: “What have we done, that our children are turning into vultures? What is happening?”

Vultures: this is how gay rights activists describe the perpetrators of “corrective rape” and hate murder.

Kholisa Mncanda, Noxolo’s mother

In 2008, also in KwaThema, they raped and stoned to death Eudy Simelane, who played soccer for the national women’s team. This year they tried to rape a young gay man. “We are determined to kill all gay people in this area,” the young man’s attackers told him. “And we will do it.”

Back at Nogwaza’s funeral service Epoc members pay tribute to her role in the organisation, describing how she had helped organise gay pride marches in the township since 2009.

Speaker after speaker salutes her courage — even those who never knew her personally. Their banners represent organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign and People Opposing Women Abuse.

It is as if yesterday’s numbed grief has changed to defiance, as hymns give way to songs of activism.

As the group prepares to escort the coffin to Vlakfontein Cemetery they hold up placards: “You can’t change me. I was born like this!” reads one. And “Where should we go? You’re gonna love us!” declares another.

“We will not rest,” says Epoc’s coordinator, Bontle Khalo, announcing monthly protests until Nogwaza’s killers are brought to justice. Fellow Epoc member Pretty Makhanya is quieter, but no less determined: “uNoxolo’s name means ‘peace’,” she reminds the crowd. “As much as we are angry, let us remember that.”

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