Fifteen years after the release of Simon and I, filmmaker and activist Bev Ditsie’s intimate portrayal of her friendship with fellow activist Simon Nkoli, interest in the film shows little sign of abating.
Filmed locally during the height of the HIV crisis and fierce political activism, the film will be screened as a tribute to Nkoli on World Aids Day at Industry Lounge, a Johannesburg queer nightclub and arts hub.
Ditsie spoke about the film’s relevance today, the bastardisation of the annual gay pride event – which she initiated with Nkoli in 1990 – and the importance of young queer people being aware of the history of South Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) political movement.
You screened Simon and I in July as part of the First Wednesday Film Club in Johannesburg. Why is it a documentary people still want to see?
Someone came up to me once and said to me that, as a black man, he understood where his pride comes from. That he knew of people like Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela. But as a gay person, he was kind of lost in terms of who he could look up to and why – until he found out about Simon Nkoli. And that made sense to him, you know?
Simon has made some powerful statements that contextualised the struggle of being black and queer. For me, that’s the most significant thing, because you have far too many young queer people who have no idea why we are where we are. Which essentially means that they are going around lost.
I want to ask them: “Was it by magic that we were one of the first countries in the world to have sexual orientation included in the Constitution?”
Do you think there is a hunger for knowing queer history?
If you look at where we are and where we come from, you’d hope that people would be more cognisant of history. Especially with queer politics where it is at the moment – where South Africa is in terms of international response to the United Nations Human Rights Council [with the Africa Group’s resolution to suspend the operations of the independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity] – and the reversal of so much of the gains that we’ve made. But also like the gay pride event and its issues.
What about Pride?
Well, it seems these days, you have a whole Pride committee that is fully and totally ignoring the history of Pride. You kind of wonder: Are they even aware of what Pride is and what it should be? It has been bastardised to such a degree that all it is about is the Pink Rand. They have commercialised a movement, a political statement.
What were your thoughts when you first heard Pride would be held in Melrose Arch this year?
It wasn’t a shock. I think it might have been more of a shock if they’d decided to do something really inclusive and something that actually has meaning. But they’re not going to do that because we all know white privilege will always try to protect itself, and whether queer or not is completely insignificant. The queer community is really just a tiny microcosm of the entire South Africa – and the entire world, really.
You weren’t shocked. Disappointed maybe? Angry?
No, no. Honestly Carl, I don’t give a fuck. But me saying that, I suppose, comes from an angry space. I can’t just discard something that has been my whole life. I dedicated 10 years of what were the most formative years of my life to the movement and eradicating all discrimination and highlighting issues of inequality and oppression, you know?
So when I say things like “I don’t give a fuck”, it comes from place of anger, yes; a place of caring, a place of hurt and having given up any hope that anything will change. Because, for it to change, white people as a whole need to change and realise the deeply mental and spiritual effects of apartheid on us.
How important is the establishment of black-owned queer spaces such as the Industry Lounge?
Well, they’re definitely breaking boundaries in terms of what they’re doing. To have a place where we, as queer people, feel comfortable – where you don’t have to force people to acknowledge your existence or your issues – is amazing. I’m really glad they’ll be screening Simon & I. I almost wish the organisers of Pride could be there.
If they were to come to the screening, what would you like them to take away from it?
I would want them to understand what Pride is and what it’s really about. And not even necessarily from a black point of view, but from an activist point of view. Simple. Right now, it’s all about: “Oh, we have a diverse number of people and they all want to have a party.”
Would they even be able to have that party had we not fought for them to have this out-in-the-open, nice-nice party? They could not have had this freedom if it weren’t for people having fought for them to have it. And, actually, that freedom could be lost like that [snaps her fingers]. I’d like for them to actually wake the fuck up. Plain and simple: wake the fuck up.
How do we go about getting people to “wake up”?
Industry is trying to do that now, no? By bringing in young, queer artists and screening films like Simon and I. Aside from that, there are other activists too. People who, through their music, performance or photography, are challenging things. But it is only happening in small pockets unfortunately.
How important are young black queer artists in keeping us queer people on our toes politically?
I love young people. I love fearlessness. They remind me of me when I was that age. The thing for me with many young queer people – especially those who don’t know their history, their queer history – is that you can’t put them in the same category as the #FeesMustFall students and activists.
Those kids know their history. They know where we failed; where our parents failed. They know that we are where we are now as a country is largely because our parents compromised and then got comfortable in that compromise. Whereas queer people who don’t know their history don’t know where we failed and where they can improve on what we did.
That is my only eina. Look, there are politically engaged queer people, definitely, but they are in isolated pockets. There’s no real cohesion.
Is the difference between #FeesMustFall and young queer kids that there is a cause and there is no real cause queer people need to rally around? Or is there?
There’s a lot we should be rallying around. It’s not as though there’s been a decrease in homophobic attacks or a decrease in discrimination. And if you think about how the religious right is making inroads into every country in Africa and spreading hate and propaganda. The same guys who are spreading hate in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and wherever are here too.
And it doesn’t matter what our Constitution says. I mean, the Constitution says women should not be discriminated against, but women are being raped all the time. We have a president who doesn’t give a fuck about the fact that he is a misogynist bastard accused of rape.
Does it matter what the Constitution says? Not really. The activism we need to be doing should be on the ground. You know, in 1996, when I was trying to call out the fact that so many lesbian women were being hunted down and murdered, I was told I was detracting from the gains we had made. This was the time of jackrolling – where women were abducted and raped left, right and centre.
And then, when we started coming out as lesbians and activists, they started targeting us. A lot of us were specifically targeted during the time of jackrolling. And, so many years later, we are still being attacked.
So, ja, many South Africans might be free, but some of us are not. So there are definitely things we can be rallying around – things we should be rallying around.
Are queer people being apathetic?
I think mainstream media has a big role to play. This issue is not an issue for them. The things that sell are the corruption stories. Why has no one, for example, asked how Fezeka “Khwezi” Kuzwayo died? Why is absolutely everybody quiet on this? It’s like: “Oh, it’s a woman; it’s rape”. It’s under the carpet.
This feeds into the unspoken thing of Umkhonto weSizwe cadres and the level of sexual assaults that took place in those camps. As a country, how are we going to make any inroads if we can’t even acknowledge that our leaders in government today were perpetrators of violence against women in those camps?
And how they still are. And how those same women – those women who were in those camps – are so terrified of saying anything that they would rather stand with placards against a rape survivor, so that they can defend their men. Because, you know, if they don’t defend their men, they lose the gains they’ve achieved by sacrificing their bodies and their souls.
Can you see the spiral? So we’ve got a lot to rally for and against.
It seems an impossible task to get us out of that spiral.
You know, I get invited to speak about Simon a lot – particularly this year. But here I am, a black, queer woman trying to raise women’s issues. But when I get invited to speak about him, I am essentially asked to glorify this man.
I’m not saying he wasn’t important or that he wasn’t a significant figure in our politics. I mean he pioneered some shit. So I’m not taking anything away from him. And I want people to know about him, to have this history known.
But on the other hand, I can’t every single month be talking about Simon Nkoli without raising all the other problematic issues around that. Are you seeing my dilemma?
Given that, why agree to having Simon and I screened?
Well, because the film raises all those issues. If you look at the context of Simon and I, the relevance to where we are today is there on so many levels.
In the one scene, he’s like: “My god, I was fighting against the apartheid government, now I’m fighting against this bloody government.” How relevant is that?
The issues it looks at around sexism are just as pertinent and relevant today. I don’t have to be in a memorial lecture to explain it all. The film is there. It does all of that. That is the power of that film.
‘Simon and I’ will be screened on Thursday December 1 at Industry Lounge, 305 Fox Street, Jeppestown, Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian