LGBTI fight for a home in the ANC
It was a queer beauty pageant, but some guerrilla tactics were necessary. The organisers of Ms Gay Northern Cape were frustrated with what they saw as the ANC-led provincial government’s ongoing “delay tactics and excuses” when called on to support queer events or advocacy initiatives.
So they decided to hit the party where it hurt most.
“It was 2014, and just before the elections.
We were frustrated with them always ignoring us.
So we covered all the ANC election posters with posters advertising our pageant,” says queer rights activist and ANC member, Tebogo Makwati, one of the organisers of the event.
The result? “It was lit, my friend. It was lit,” he laughs. “They called us in, saying we were trying to ruin their election campaign. We were like, ‘Yes, we are … we want your attention.’ And you know what? We got it. That’s how the conversation between us and the ANC executive here started.”
[Organisers of the Ms Gay beauty pageant plastered ANC election posters to get the government’s attention. It worked (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)]
Originally held to discuss the lack of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) advocacy initiatives, the long-awaited meeting also saw a more thorny issue being discussed.
“We spoke to them about the treatment we were getting within the party. How we felt marginalised,” says Makwati. “The fortunate part is that the ex-secretary, Zamani Saul, is now the chairperson of the province. He took the matter up and said we need to establish an information desk or something.”
The need for a forum within the party to deal specifically with issues affecting LGBTI ANC members — and queer communities in general — was not identified in the Northern Cape alone. The party will soon see the establishment of its first LGBTI desk in Johannesburg.
“The project started in 2014, but didn’t take off as it was difficult to organise nationally,” says Mpho Buntse, the spokesperson for the ANC LGBTI Forum.
An informal structure made up of LGBTI ANC members, the forum was initially planning a march to Luthuli House to demand the formation of a national LGBTI league within the party. But after meeting with the party last Friday, it was decided to first establish LGBTI desks at regional level. The first will be in the Johannesburg region.
“This will become a pilot model that we will use to attempt to convince all regions of the ANC to endorse and adopt. We are currently in talks with regional executive committees in various provinces,” says Buntse. It is hoped that discussions will have started in all regions by March 2018.
The desk will serve as an advocacy and education initiative. Buntse says it will go beyond the ANC “and advocate for a country that is free of LGBTI-related hate crimes, and push for the representation of the queer community within governance and facilitate and mobilise support for the party at a grass-roots level”.
He says that the constitution of the ANC is “very explicit” about the commitment of the ANC and the country to protect sexual minorities. “We believe that policy should be translated into action. Among other focus areas, we will demand that Parliament fast-track the hate crimes Bill,” he says.
According to the party’s constitution, its members have a duty to “fight against racism, tribal chauvinism, sexism, religious and political intolerance or any other form of discrimination or chauvinism”.
Yet, despite its strong anti-discrimination policy, Buntse concedes that “there is a culture of homophobia in the party”.
“Our assumption is that this is embedded in the patriarchal nature of the history of the ANC. Although the party does not in any way promote homophobia and transphobia, we still have individuals that hold conservative views, mainly because of their cultural, traditional and religious subscriptions.”
For 30 years, Isaac Johnson*, a transgender man, was an active member of the ANC. But after coming face to face with the conservative views held by individual members of his branch, he left the party.
“I wrote a comment in a WhatsApp group earlier this year on why I believed [President Jacob] Zuma should step down,” he says. “But they were really strong Zuma loyalists.”
The messages that followed left him “depressed and humiliated”.
Some of the messages read: “You are a confused woman who wants to be a man”; “We hate gays and lesbians on a basis [sic] that it is an immoral act. An abomination.” And, “If anyone is offended, go to court and report me. I will bring my bible.”
“Even Zuma himself told publicly his hatred toward gays and lesbian ungqingili,” another message read.
Johnson has laid a charge of hate speech against two members of his former branch with the Commission for Gender Equality.
Thandeka Nthuli*, one of the accused, denied the claims of queerphobia, saying she was merely “retaliating to Johnson’s insults”.
The clincher for Johnson, however, was the reference to the president’s 2006 remark, in which Zuma had said: “When I was growing up an ungqingili [gay person] would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”
“When they mentioned the president, I felt like Zuma is a role model to them. They believe the leader of our organisation doesn’t like gay people, so they also don’t like them. That made me feel unwelcome,” says Johnson. “I mean, how can I be in an organisation where my sexual orientation or gender identity is what matters — and not my activism?
“I joined the organisation because it fought for the liberation of all people. All people. It’s there in theory, but if you look at the ANC, they haven’t done much in terms of educating their members regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Members are either ignorant or biased. Or both.”
Buntse believes that the establishment of an LGBTI desk, and, later, an LGBTI league within the party, will provide the education needed. “As a forum we have a political role to play and we condemn such treatment, especially if it comes from members of a movement that advocates for a queer-friendly South Africa. We urge those who have found themselves in a similar situation to rally behind us as we build this forum.”
Back in the Northern Cape, Makwati and his fellow activists say they will be keeping a close eye on the to-be-established desk, to monitor its progress and how it is run.
“There are a lot of attacks on LGBTI people here, but no real conversation about it. We want to start that conversation,” he says.
He and his fellow queer activists continue to remain loyal to the party they call their home.
Their need for attention-grabbing guerrilla tactics now a thing of the past, Makwati says: “We are fortunate, in that the party regularly invites us to events and meetings now. But we will continue fighting for a space. We want a sense of acknowledgement that we exist — that we are here. And that, because of this, we are important to the movement.”
* Not their real names
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian