For Nonhlanhla Mkhize, it’s not a straightforward matter getting members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community to rally behind – and vote for – the candidates in this year’s municipal elections who speak to their needs.
The director of the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, the city’s largest organisation catering to the needs of its LGBTI community, says: “We have had a number of engagements with people in our communities, and what has come out of that is that people seem confused.
“There seems to be a feeling of: ‘What happens when a party embraces my rights and speaks to addressing the issues I face, but its leadership doesn’t really?’ In other words: ‘Do I support an individual or do I support a party?’”
This conundrum aside, the centre has, over the years, built up a strong – albeit politically precarious – relationship with the Democratic Alliance’s openly gay ward councillor, Martin Meyer.
He says: “So many in this community have told me how they do not, for example, want to go to hospitals or clinics here, because they are afraid of having to disclose their sexual orientation. Such information could, of course, be critical in some instances in ensuring adequate treatment.”
But Mkhize is reluctant to throw her weight and that of her organisation behind the candidate.
“It’s tricky,” she concedes, adding: “We work with people and not political parties. We support him as an individual because of the kind of person he is. He is very dedicated to equality and, when it comes to patient care, he’d stop at nothing to make sure that that person, or people, got whatever it was they needed.”
Aware of the potential pitfalls nongovernmental organisations could face in openly rallying behind a particular political party candidate, Meyer says: “The centre is trying to stay nonpartisan, which is essential. It is actually preferable. NGOs have to be careful not to be seen as actively supporting one political party. But there is a lot of support for the work I do on the ground.”
Someone providing precisely such on-the-ground support is University of KwaZulu-Natal law school lecturer Shaun Kruger.
Untethered from any need to be nonpartisan, Kruger, a supporter of the LGBTI-focused work being done by Meyer, says: “It is absolutely important for those in the LGBTI community to get behind candidates that support and work towards promoting their rights. Because, if you think about it, service delivery is about more than just having access to water or proper sanitation, or whatever.
“If you, as an LGBTI person, go to your councillor with a particular grievance and he or she doesn’t even recognise your rights, how are they going to protect them – let alone champion them?”
Kruger, a former chairperson of the Durban Pride steering committee, adds: “I do work with various LGBTI organisations across the province and, for me, there is no choice but Meyer, really. He is actively involved in our community throughout the year – not just offering up empty words around election time.”
The frustration felt by potential voters feeling they are constantly being “offered up empty promises” is something Mkhize is all too familiar with.
“During our engagements with people in our community, questions came up,” she says. “Questions such as: ‘Yes, he may, for example, be a gay person, but what if he is only being used by his party to get more votes?’
“So people were, in a way, asking: ‘Is the party itself progressive, or is what we are seeing only because of the work being done by this one candidate?’
“It seems to me,” she adds, “that, for many, their heart is telling them one thing, but their mind, and the reality on the ground, is saying something different. So the question arises: Will people vote for a party or for someone who can give them something tangible – and not just a dream?”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s LGBTI fellow at the Mail & Guardian