The Mpumalanga Pride march, organised by a lesbian group, the Highveld Heroines Forum, and Ermelo’s LGBTI Parents Forum, started in the tired-looking Mpumalanga Stadium on the border of Wesselton, the township in Ermelo.
Images of liberation struggle leaders stared down from the stadium walls. About 100 people, of all genders (though most were women), and dressed in everything from shorts and T-shirts to home-sewn finery, followed a truck covered in colourful fabrics through Wesselton.
Marchers carried an enormous rainbow flag, colourful umbrellas, and signs listing the names of victims of corrective rape or murder. Posters bore slogans such as “Say No! to homophobia”, “Gay by birth. Butch by choice”, and “Proudly lesbian and love every minute of it”.
Organisers spoke passionately about LGBTI rights, both at the stadium and on the march. On the route of about 3km, marchers sang freedom songs and toyi-toyied. For the safety of the participants, a police van followed the crowd.
Returning to the stadium, many of the marchers pulled out picnic baskets, settling in for the afternoon, while others went for free HIV tests at a department of health van, or perused the stalls set up by the Anova Health Health4Men campaign, Boithato (an MSM [men who have sex with men] peer-outreach programme) and the organisation Limpopo LGBTI Proudly Out.
The march was organised by local groups, without the commercial support that enables pride marches in bigger cities to be more spectacular. But there has also been controversy about the commercialisation of pride in such cities, and whether it has abandoned activism in favour of fun.
Most of the Ermelo marchers, it seemed, came from the Gert Sibande district of Mpumalanga, or from Limpopo – five hours’ drive away. This bears testimony to the determination of grass-roots LGBTI groups. The membership of the groups on this march is overwhelmingly black African.
In a small town such as Ermelo, marching openly in a pride event means you are outing yourself to other residents. The fact that everyone in the township knows almost everyone else means that there is no hiding afterwards. As some of the placards reminded observers, lesbians have all too frequently been attacked, raped and murdered in small towns – including Ermelo.
There were no aggressive reactions to this event, however. Most people who came out of their homes to see the march seemed rather bewildered. A taxi or two nudged past the procession, but none of the drivers hooted or called out at us. Towards the end of the march, three gogos raised their fists and shouted “Amandla!” but it was not clear whether they understood what the march was about. The pride flag and other symbols of queer resistance are not universally recognisable.
The department of justice and constitutional development’s National Task Team on LGBTI Hate Crimes has rolled out TV and radio advertisements in different languages, and plans on more community outreach. Marches such as Ermelo’s suggest that more needs to be done to affirm LGBTI identities, rather than merely highlighting hate crimes.
There could be more focus on homophobic laws elsewhere in Africa. Our politicians, particularly, have been silent on the issue. Yet the march also hinted at hope for LGBTI people in rural areas – hope of gradual change and acceptance.