​A murder spurs queer activists to spread a message of love

LGBTI supporters at Johannesburg Pride on October 25 2014. (Ihsaan Haffejee, Anadolu Agency)

LGBTI supporters at Johannesburg Pride on October 25 2014. (Ihsaan Haffejee, Anadolu Agency)

A group of 20 people made their way through the Cape Town settlement of Driftsands, where lesbian Noluvo Swelindawo was murdered in what is suspected to be a hate crime.

Slowly, their numbers grew. They walked in solidarity six days after her death — their message of love born of an act of hatred.

Spurred on by Swelindawo’s murder on December 4, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex activists across the country have taken to the streets in a bid to stem the tide of hate crimes against the LGBTI community.

An initiative called Masithandane (“let us love each other”) was formed after activists and concerned individuals met at the University of the Witwatersrand on December 10.

“I decided to put out a call to activists and individuals on the ground after Noluvo’s murder. I just couldn’t deal with the violence perpetrated against us,” says Masithandane’s founder and LGBTI and gender rights activist, Phumi Mtetwa.

Swelindawo (22) was dragged from her home by up to 11 men in the early hours of that Sunday morning, before being shot dead.

The group of 20 made their way through Driftsands. Emblazoned on their T-shirts were the words “Remember Vovo”, a reference to Swelindawo.

The group’s rallying cry against violence resonated with many, and the crowd grew to about 150. “Along the way, people were asking what the walk was about and, once they heard, [they] would start walking along with us,” says Elsbeth Engelbrecht, the director of the Triangle Project and a Masithandane partner.

The walk saw discussions taking place right outside the house where the gun used to kill Swelindawo was allegedly bought, as well as at the house where some of her suspected killers live and at the bridge where her body was found.

“It was good to have so many LGBTI people claim space, but what was great was that the [Driftsands] community was leading the discussions. Noluvo’s brother spoke and there was also a community priest who spoke,” says Engelbrecht.

“A lesbian member of the community’s father is a reverend in the area and he was there, standing proudly next to his daughter and joining in the singing. That was very powerful.”

In KwaThema on the East Rand, Mtetwa and her fellow activists took to the streets on December 17, seven days after Masithandane was formed. They visited taverns, liquor stores and surrounding houses, distributing pamphlets and discussing the corrosive effects of violence.

“After discussing the extent of hate crimes in South Africa and the areas across the country that needed the most work, we decided to kick things off in the East Rand,” says Mtetwa.

Their anti-violence message was not solely focused on violence against LGBTI people.

“We spoke of the damaging effects of all types of violence — against women, children, other men, albinos and, of course, LGBTI people. And, you know, people were very receptive. They were saying things like, ‘Nobody has ever come and spoke to us like this’.

“Only once was there an incident where this guy stood up saying he was a man and didn’t need to listen us. But the tavern owner put him in his place. For us to have that show of solidarity from the tavern owner was really great,” says Mtetwa.

Engelbrecht says that, although there was a real need for this kind of strategy, limited resources could pose a problem.

But Mtethwa remains undeterred by this possibility. “We have no choice but to keep on. So we will keep on building our little army and finding more and more foot soldiers.

“We need to take collective responsibility for all forms of violence in this country,” she says.

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

Carl Collison

Carl Collison

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. He has contributed to a range of local and international publications, covering social justice issues as well as art and is committed to defending and advancing the human rights of the LGBTI community in Southern Africa. Read more from Carl Collison

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