/ 1 July 2021

‘We only write about them when they are dead’: Hate killings of black lesbians in South Africa

Lesbian Killers Sentenced
Celebrating justice: Women’s rights activists outside the Khayelitsha magistrate’s court in 2012 at the sentencing of Zoliswa Nkonyana’s killers. Four men were sentenced to 18 years in jail each for the February 2006 murder of the 19-year-old lesbian. (Shelley Christians/ Gallo Images/The Times)

This is an edited extract from the book Femicide in South Africa (Kwela) by Nechama Brodie. 

In 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela was released, Johannesburg held the very first Gay and Lesbian Pride march, at which Simon Nkoli, Beverly Ditsie and Justice Edwin Cameron were among the speakers. The marchers chanted, “Out of the closet and into the streets.”

It was a significant moment, even though it would take several more years before gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) individuals would be granted similar rights and protections as hetero- and cis-sexual South Africans, first under an interim and then a final constitution that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. 

Between 1994 and 2005 a number of legal amendments were made and new laws introduced that formalised rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals. The criminalisation of sodomy was declared unconstitutional. Same-sex partners were granted similar rights in terms of immigration and financial benefits as those granted to different-sex spouses or partners. Trans and intersex individuals were allowed to change their legally recognised sex. Same-sex couples were allowed to jointly adopt children or adopt each other’s children. Lesbian couples were allowed to be registered as the natural, legitimate parents of a child that one of them had born. 

There were also challenges to the constitutionality of the Marriage Act, which did not then allow for same-sex unions to be recognised as marriages. By late 2005, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Marriage Act was unconstitutional and gave parliament one year in which to remedy the matter.

But being “out of the closet” also meant that LGBTI individuals were more openly targeted for hate, harassment, victimisation and violence — even as these new laws were passed supposedly protecting their rights. Although this text focuses on violence against black lesbians, it is important to note that the growth in hate crimes was experienced by all members of the LGBTI community, with transgender individuals experiencing even higher levels of violence, as a group, than lesbians or gay men.

Black lesbians face double jeopardy 

This is also a good place to discuss why this is about “black lesbians” and not just lesbians, and also what the concept of “black lesbians” represents as a group, even though it is quite obviously made up of individual black women who are by no means homogenous because of their sexual preference.

In Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Jane Bennett, Vasu Reddy and Relebohile Moletsane’s book The Country We Want to Live In: Hate Crimes and Homophobia in the Lives of Black Lesbian South Africans (HSRC Press, 2010), they note that, although there were risks to “singling out a particular group of people as targets of gender-based violence”, black lesbians were “doubly vulnerable”. 

This was because, firstly, although all women in South Africa were vulnerable to violence, there was a correlation between increased poverty and increased vulnerability and, in South Africa, being black meant there was a greater association with being poor or having less access to resources. Not only did black women live in environments in which, just as other black women, they were vulnerable to attack, they also lived in places in which cultures were often deeply homophobic and in which sexual violence had become a “popular weapon”.

In the 1980s, the country’s ongoing rape crisis had started to take on chilling new aspects, including gang rapes that became known as “jackrolling”. Jackrolling initially involved the selection and abduction of a victim, usually a woman who (her attackers believed) presented herself as if she was “better than them” and “out of reach”. There were echoes of these sentiments in the growing number of stories that began to emerge during the 1990s of black lesbian women being targeted, being beaten and raped by men, supposedly as a means of “teaching them how to be proper women”. 

This gradually became referred to as “curative” or “corrective” rape, and involved three distinct aspects: one was punishment of the woman, for her choice of sexual identity and her lifestyle; a second was the humiliation of the victim — as with jackrolling, this was often achieved through gang rapes; the third was the repulsive misnomer of “transforming” lesbians into heterosexual women through violent penetration.

Even as newspapers carried the occasional story about black lesbians’ struggles for acceptance individually or within their communities in the context of the changing legislative landscape, almost every single one of these women’s accounts also included incidents of violence, most frequently rape. Sometimes these women were even raped with the knowledge of their family members, who either actively encouraged the assault in the hope of ridding the young woman of her homosexuality, or tacitly accepted such attacks as what should happen to “girls like that”.

Surveys from the time also indicated fewer than half of such assaults were ever reported to the police, and that nearly three-quarters of gay men and women did not believe the police would take their complaints seriously (a sentiment which, anecdotally, seems to have been backed up by the horrific experiences of those who did go and report their rapes).

It was in this context that, in 2002, Zanele Muholi and Donna Smith, both of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, established a campaign called “The Rose Has Thorns”, which researched and provided legal and other support for black lesbian women who had been raped and assaulted, and began to push for the recognition of these acts of violence as hate crimes (something that has still not been achieved).

Where history, hate & HIV collide

The use of rape as a means of punishment, particularly of black women, needs to take at least one other factor into account and that is the impact of HIV and Aids. By the mid-1990s, HIV infections were growing at an exponential rate in South Africa. Between 1993 and 1999, HIV prevalence increased by more than 400%, making South Africa the country with the fastest-growing epidemic in the world. 

Under the direction of HIV-denialist and then president, Thabo Mbeki, and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, new, life-saving antiretroviral medications were blocked in favour of recommendations of beetroot, African potato, garlic, olive oil and the scam medicine Virodene. Life expectancy plummeted and, because of the state’s deliberate misinformation programmes, the disease remained deeply stigmatised even as infections soared, which contributed to rising anger.   

In 1998 an HIV activist and educator named Gugu Dlamini was stoned and beaten to death near KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal after publicly revealing her HIV-positive status. Seven years later, in December 2005, another Aids activist, Lorna Mlosana, a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign, was gang-raped in a bathroom in Khayelitsha. When her five rapists discovered she was HIV-positive, they beat her to death.

Women were also punished by being potentially infected with HIV by their rapists. Among the growing number of news reports of black lesbians being targeted and gang-raped because of their sexual preferences were stories of women who had found out they had been infected with HIV, or who had died of Aids-related complications a few years after being raped.

Lesbians targeted even as courts recognise same-sex marriage

In 2006, not coincidentally the same year of Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, and the year in which the National Assembly passed a law recognising same-sex marriage, local newspapers started reporting on murders of black lesbians who had been targeted and killed by groups of men. 

In February 2006, 19-year-old openly lesbian soccer player Zoliswa Nkonyana was at a shebeen in Khayelitsha with another lesbian friend of hers when a group of straight girls taunted them for being tomboys. Zoliswa apparently replied, “We are not tomboys: we are lesbians. We are just doing our thing, so leave us alone.”

One of the (straight) women went and summoned a group of men, who pursued Zoliswa and her friend across a field, eventually catching up with Zoliswa (the friend managed to get away) before pelting her with bricks and beating her with a golf club until she died. It would take nearly six years and some 60 court appearances before four of the nine men eventually charged with her killing would be found guilty.

Zoliswa’s murder was the first prominent example of news reporting about a black lesbian who was killed for being “out”. The media’s response to the case quickly indicated why this might have been the case. When the Sunday Times covered the murder a few days after her death, the newspaper ran the story together with a photograph of several other lesbian women in Khayelitsha who had been Zoliswa’s friends or acquaintances. 

As a result of the news coverage, these women, too, were targeted, and there were subsequent reports that at least one of them had been raped. At least one of Zoliswa’s friends — a lesbian identified as “T”, who attended court protests at the pre-trial hearings — was stabbed by two men in Nyanga in retaliation for giving testimony.

A similar situation occurred in 2007 after the television programme Carte Blanche ran an insert on lesbian rapes and murders, in which a number of black women were identified as lesbians in the footage. Several of the women featured said they were unable to return home after the show was aired because they feared for their safety.

This may have been one of the factors that had inhibited, or that continued to inhibit, reporting of hate crimes and violence against lesbians — the very real fear that identifying the victim in one crime would implicate other women, and that this might make them targets in turn.

From 2006 onwards, a pattern began to emerge in media coverage of the rape and murders of black lesbian women, the stories bearing uncanny resemblances to each other even when they were a decade apart. Almost certainly, the cases that were reported in the news did not represent the extent of such killings in real life. But, as detailed above, there were a number of very real deterrents to reporting these types of crimes (the risk of others becoming targets, the poor treatment of lesbian complainants by the police). Plus, this type of aggravated homicide — the rape and killing of lesbians — was not (and is still not) recognised as a specific category of crime distinct from that of general rape and homicide, and so there is no separate police data.

This means all we have to go on really are a handful of news stories, and information collected by various LGBTI organisations around the country (which is usually the basis for any media reporting — journalists are typically alerted to a murder by a local or regional rights group). 

Next week the Mail & Guardian will publish part two of this extract, which lists some of the killings of black lesbians, allegedly because of their sexual orientation, between 2006 and 2018.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.