/ 1 July 2020

Dancer and queer rights activist Kirvan Fortuin’s final farewell

25jun Kirvanfortuin Yk 1
Macassar residents gathered in Sheikh Yusuf Street for the memorial of murdered dancer and choreographer Kirvan Fortuin. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

It is the day before the funeral of his friend, Kirvan Fortuin, and Lindsay Louis has just finished penning the eulogy he has been writing. “It was difficult. There’s just so much to say. It was difficult, but now I’m done. It will basically take the form of a letter to Kirvan,” says Louis. After a slight pause, he asks: “Would you like me to read it to you?”

Straightening the sheet of paper in his hands, he clears his throat:

“A letter for Kirvan

Dear Kirvan, we as your close friends are devastated and shocked by your brutal death.

We are struggling to make sense of this heinous and senseless act.

You were so immensely talented with talents that saw you grace the world’s stages …

You pushed boundaries and blazed your own path.”

Fortuin, a 28-year-old dancer, choreographer and gender-nonconforming activist for queer rights, was murdered in the early hours of Saturday June 13 . A 14-year-old girl has been arrested in connection with the murder, which is still being investigated. 

Born and raised in Macassar, a small, low-income town about 30km outside Cape Town, Fortuin reached heady career heights as a dancer and choreographer. After their death, the Artscape Theatre Centre issued a statement mourning the “untimely passing” of this “sought-after theatre maker and talent developer”.

“Kirvan is the recipient of several prestigious awards, in South Africa, the Netherlands and Switzerland from government, civil society and the art world. [They] established the Kirvan Fortuin Foundation and Fortuin Dance Theatre and had provided several employment opportunities to dancers and choreographers across South Africa. [They] continuously showcased our youth in the genre of dance,” the statement read. 

In 2019, at the Western Cape Cultural Affairs Awards, hosted annually by the provincial department of cultural affairs and sport, Fortuin received an award for outstanding contribution to preservation and promotion of an indigenous art form. 

The Artscape statement added that “[they had] also done significant work in the LGBTIQ+ community and the visibility of marginalised communities”. 

“We remember your tireless efforts to bring about a just society for all. How you championed the inherent dignity of the queer child. The trans child. The forgotten child.” 

Mother of memorable balls

Fortuin’s determination to celebrate and make visible black queer people was perhaps no more evident than in their push to cement Cape Town’s ball scene. As the founder and mother of the House of Le Cap, Fortuin put together and hosted numerous balls. 

A few days after their murder, a memorial was held for Fortuin at Amsterdam’s Framer Framed gallery, during which they were called “a star … one of the brightest”. 

On the same day, at Cape Town’s Zer021 nightclub, an altogether more emotional memorial was taking place in the location at which the balls were held. Here, the children of the House of Le Cap delivered tear-filled, off-the-cuff speeches about how “no mother could compare” to Fortuin. “[They] opened a door for me to queer society … where I felt at home,” one mourner said. 

Others spoke of the “poise about [them]” and their “guidance and work ethic”. There were funny recollections of how, unable to locate someone, they would scream in Cape Flats antie fashion, “Waar is die kind [Where is this child]?” Others told how they would reprimand them with a simple yet steely, “Jy kan nie daai doen nie. Jy kan nie [You can’t do that. You can’t]!” 

More than merely an occasion to show off the attendees’ dance skills and outlandish, self-celebratory outfits, Fortuin saw the balls as an opportunity to raise funds for causes close to their heart. “[They] raised R10 000 for a trans healthcare facility in Bellville,” says Louis. “[They] also ran programmes in Macassar through [their] foundation, training kids in the community in dance and raising funds for them.”

“You were a true [child] of Macassar, this little town next to the N2 and the deep blue sea. We remember how proud you were of being from Macassar.” 

Kirvan Fortuin’s grave at the Welmoed Cemetery in Eerste River. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

A mother’s tears

Slight of frame, Charlotte Claasen has a ready smile that belies her pain at having recently lost her firstborn. “Ons is gebreek [We are broken],” Claasen says. “Dit is baie vir my … dit is bitter en dit is seer. Hy was ’n baie gehoorsame kind. Ons was baie close gewees. Hy was baie aan my sy. Hy’t omgesien na my. Wat sy pa nie vir my gedoen het nie het hy vir my gedoen. Sien u nou [It is a lot for me … it is bitter and it is painful. He was an obedient child. We were very close. He was at my side a lot. He took care of me. What his father did not do for me, he did. Do you see]?”

It wasn’t always so, she concedes. Coming to terms with Fortuin’s sexuality was for Claasen, a deeply religious woman, something with which she struggled.

“Ek het vir ’n kerksuster gesê ek is ongelukkig omdat ek kon sien waarin beweeg hy. Toe gaan ek na die kerk toe en ek praat daaroor en hulle sê vir my, ‘Aanvaar jou kind. Dis jou kind. Jy moet lief is vir hom.’ Agterna het ons ’n goeie bond gehad. Sien u nou wat ek bedoel? Ek het dit aanvaar. Hy’t hier saam met ons gebly. Ek het vir hom gesê, ‘Jy trek ’ie uit my huis uit ’ie.’ Hy’t sy kamer baie mooi gemaak. Daar was nou die ander dag iemand in die huis. Hy’t so geskrik toe hy vra, ‘Bly Kirvan hier?’ Daai man het seker ’n halfuur gesit en huil in Kirvan se kamer. Hy kon nie glo dat Kirvan daar bly nie. Maar ek het vir hom gesê my kind was gelukkig hier saam met my in my huisie [I told one of the church sisters that I am unhappy because I could see the things he was getting up to. So I went to discuss this with the church and they just told me, ‘Accept your child. He is your child. You must love him.’ After that, we developed a strong bond. Do you see what I mean? I accepted it. He lived here with us. I always told him, ‘You are not moving out of my house.’ He made his room really beautiful. The other day, someone who came to visit was so shocked to see Kirvan lived here. That man sat crying in Kirvan’s room for probably half an hour. He couldn’t believe Kirvan lived here. But I told him my child was very happy living here with me in my little house].”

Acceptance led to pride as Claasen realised the great name Fortuin was carving out for themself. “Ek voel bly. Ek voel opgewonde. Dis ’n blessing. Kirvan was ’n blessing vir my [I am happy. I feel excited. It is a blessing. Kirvan was a blessing for me],” she says about the outpouring of grief internationally in response to their death.

“Weet meneer,” she adds, “ek het hier in ons village geloop, nou seker twee maande terug, en toe roep iemand vir my. Toe sê die vrou vir my, ‘Is daai jou kind wat so op die TV verskyn?’ Toe sê ek, ‘Ja, dit is my kind.’ Toe sê die vrou, ‘Maar julle behoort nie hier te bly nie. Hier’s te veel geweld.’ [Sir, do you know, I was walking in our village here, about two months ago, when someone called me. She asked, ‘Is that your son who is always appearing on TV?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is my child.’ Then she said, ‘But you shouldn’t be living here. There’s too much violence here’).”

Charlotte Claasen proudly holds a photo of her eldest son Kirvan Fortuin at his memorial in Macassar, held at their home. (Yazeed Kamaldien)

It is this violence that, only a few months later, claimed her child’s life. “Dis baie hard om te aanvaar my kind is nie meer hier nie. Baie hard. Sien u [It is very difficult to accept my child is no longer here. Very difficult. Do you see]?”

Saying goodbye

It is the morning of Fortuin’s funeral and neither the cold, rainy weather nor the national limitation on the number of funeral attendees because of Covid-19 restrictions could stop the throngs wishing to bid Fortuin a final farewell. The street in which Macassar’s Pinkster Protestante Kerk is located is packed with cars. The church grounds are dotted with people huddled together under umbrellas. Inside, Louis finally gets to deliver the eulogy he found so difficult to pen.

“The ages have claimed you as one of their own.

Bright star.

Klonkas van Macassar met die grasieuse ritme … [Child of Macassar with the graceful rhythm]

Rest in power.”

Draped in a rainbow flag, Fortuin’s coffin is carried out. A marching band ignores the drops of rain falling softly as its members determinedly drum and trumpet their doleful dirge.

“I’m still struggling with this … with Kirvan’s death,” says Louis. “It’s still difficult for me to get my head around it, the fact that somebody took Kirvan’s life. That she [the alleged killer] decided she was going to take their life, simply because they were a moffie in her eyes.

This article was first published on New Frame