/ 8 December 2016

Lesbian activist’s murder puts spotlight on hate crime; shocking new statistics

One of Noluvo Swelindawo's last selfies.
One of Noluvo Swelindawo's last selfies.

“For the longest time, we just knew udaliwe [she was created the way she was].”

Lwazi Swelindawo is reminiscing about the time his sister, Noluvo Swelindawo, told her cousins that she wanted to join her brother when he went to the mountain to be initiated.

“She was always uncomfortable getting undressed in front of people, so it wasn’t a surprise when she finally came out,” he says.

The 22-year-old activist was dragged from her home in Driftsands, near Khayelitsha, by up to 11 men in the early hours of Sunday morning before being shot and killed. Her brutal murder is a suspected hate crime.

“There is nothing more painful than what we are going through right now,” says Swelindawo.

Noluvo’s close friend Luzuko Mnukwa says that Noluvo was an active member of a “safe space” group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Driftsands. Mnukwa, the cofounder of Sikhumbele Safe Space, said the group arose out of a very real need.

“The safe space allows us to be ourselves without any judgment,” says Mnukwa.

According to the first-ever national study conducted into discrimination and hate crimes against South Africa’s LGBTI community, 88% of those who experienced hate crimes did not report these incidents.

Released last week, the report was conducted as a research initiative of the Love Not Hate Campaign by a Pretoria-based organisation, Out LGBT Well-Being.

Lerato Phalakatshela, Out’s hate crimes manager, said: “The fact that 88% of LGBT hate crime victims did not report these incidents to the police indicates that people generally do not have faith in the system, and that a lot still needs to be done to make sure that LGBT hate crime victims are not further victimised by the police.”

Among the reasons the report lists for this under-reporting were concerns that police would not take victims seriously, that the police would do nothing about the complaint, and that the police themselves were either the abusers or homophobic.

A case in point is the small community of Driftsands – a place where, Mnukwa says, “everybody knows each other, so there aren’t many incidents of hate crime”.

But when these incidents do occur, survivors seldom report them to the police. “People don’t want to report for fear of being ridiculed,” says Mnukwa.

There’s definitely a need for legislation to be tightened. “More needs to be done on the side of legislation, as our current laws do not seem adequate to address forms of hate that our country is now experiencing,” says Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery.

This is why a national task team on LGBTI rights was established in 2011 – made up of representatives of various government departments and civil society organisations – to address and fast-track the prosecution of cases of violence against LGBTI people.

“From a perusal of the complaints lodged with the [task team’s] rapid response team, and our engagements with the LGBTI sector, there is evidence of a reluctance to report for fear of further discrimination or secondary victimisation. This is something we are addressing with the assistance of the LGBTI sector and civil society,” says Jeffery.

FreeGender Khayelitsha has been working with the Khayelitsha Police Station to teach staff greater sensitivity in dealing with LGBTI people.

The organisation’s founder, Funeka Soldaat, says people are still hesitant to report hate crimes to the police “because so often in the past … they were subjected to humiliation at police stations”.

There’s also the fear of being outed. “Some are also reluctant because reporting it would mean having to out themselves as being gay or lesbian.”

Still, the organisation’s work with the police station is yielding results. “The station is really improving in how it deals with LGBTI people. Our struggle now is really with the community and people’s discrimination – especially against lesbian women.

“But when it comes to reporting these incidents, we do everything we can to encourage people to report it.”

Civil society organisations can only do so much to encourage people to report hate crimes, says Out’s director Dawie Nel.

“However, we cannot guarantee them justice. We need to find alternative and effective mechanisms to improve on the criminal justice system through existing collaborations and structures.”

Among these mechanisms is the task team’s national intervention strategy, which deals with education, raising awareness and training. Jeffery says that the South African Police Service has also developed a guide to sensitise police officers about LGBTI rights.

But, he emphasises, government and civil society are partners in the fight against LGBTI discrimination and violence. “We would like to urge all organisations working in the LGBTI sector to fully participate and engage with processes embarked upon by government.”

It’s too late for Noluvo Swelindawo – but perhaps her murder won’t be just another statistic and will instead be the catalyst for an effective intervention strategy to protect South Africa’s LGBTI community.

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation