Cape Town Pride has come and gone. But, for a brief moment on 26 February, the city celebrated the LGBTQIA+ community. Members of the Democratic Alliance, including the leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen, and Helen Zille, the chairperson of the DA federal council, marched alongside the LGBTQIA+ community. In a speech at Cape Town Pride, Steenhuisen pledged the DA’s support to uphold the rights of LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa and across Africa.
The next week, a crack appeared in the facade of the DA’s promise. On 2 March, Zille told a Twitter user to lose the “wokus-pokus” pronouns in her Twitter bio. Opposition to pronouncing pronouns in social media bios or email signatures has become a rallying cry for anti-trans rhetoric. The inclusion of pronouns in bios normalises asking people about their preferred pronouns rather than judging their gender identity based on physical appearance.
This incident shows an incongruence with the DA’s commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights. In an interview before the DA joined the Pride march, Steenhuisen claimed that the importance of the DA marching at Pride is to let the LGBTQIA+ community know that the DA-run Western Cape government and the City of Cape Town, support them. He cites their core governance pillar of freedom of the person, including the freedom to choose whom you love and how to live your life.
At the same Pride march, many people reported feeling alienated by DA representatives in the crowd. For example, a transgender woman who attended Cape Town Pride said: “During Steenhuisen’s speech several DA volunteers were glaring at me and making me feel incredibly uncomfortable in what was supposed to be a safe space.”
Additionally, the DA’s speeches neglected to acknowledge the transgender community, which speaks to the ongoing ignorance at a national level of the difficulties facing transgender people in South Africa.
Roberto Quintas, the mayoral committee member for urban mobility, spoke at Cape Town Pride. He described the event as reflecting the DA’s values around inclusion, tolerance and the freedom of the individual. Quintas claims that the City of Cape Town is actively working on projects to provide improved services to LGBTQIA+ people and foster safe spaces.
For instance, he pointed to the Pride Shelter Trust, the only LGBTQIA+ shelter in South Africa, as a City of Cape Town project to which they provide support. Nicole Joy Alexander, the director of the Pride Shelter Trust, said the shelter leases its premises from the City of Cape Town at a nominal rate. Additionally, in May 2020, the City of Cape Town selected Pride Shelter as a beneficiary of the Humanitarian Relief Fund, providing an amount of R685 500 for a six-month grant focusing on Covid19 awareness and gender-based violence. But the City of Cape Town does not offer the Pride Shelter administrative assistance. According to Alexander, Cape Town Pride indicated an R50 000 donation to Pride Shelter, but its financial records do not show any such payment.
The western Cape department of social development provides victim empowerment services consistent with the national strategic P\plan on gender-based violence and femicide mandate. Evaluations of the victim empowerment plans in 2014 and 2015 show that four out of 13 evaluated facilities had provision for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The majority of the population of the shelters in the Western Cape are women and their children.
The evaluations were cognisant of the lack of LBTQIA+ services. The Western Cape government’s social development plan 2020-2025 mentions LGBTQIA+ people in passing just once, under victim empowerment. However, the plan also makes no express reference to the unique services that need to be provided to transgender people. This is an incredibly concerning exclusion given that LGBTQIA+ organisations have repeatedly pointed out that the Western Cape has failed to include transgender people in any previous development plans.
Furthermore, their list of victim-empowerment services in the Western Cape identifies one shelter that provides support groups for LGBTQIA+ people. However, the organisation’s safe house facility is publicly targeted at women and children. Additionally, many of the services that provide LGBTQIA+ support services are primarily private institutions that receive limited funding from the Western Cape government or the City of Cape Town.
Quintas claimed that the City of Cape Town actively works to foster safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ people through training essential-service providers to be sensitive to the difficulties they experience. However, the reported experience of LGBTQIA+ people tells a different story — a story of a system that is slow to change.
Transgender homeless women in Cape Town have spoken about homeless shelters still allocating them to dorm rooms for male-identifying people. At the same time, they continue to experience harassment and transphobia at the hands of the Cape Town metro police.
A report issued by Gender Dynamix shows that shelters in Cape Town, aside from Pride Shelter, lack adequate policies for transgender people. Respondents to the survey described being belittled and misgendered by staff. They described experiencing discrimination at the hands of staff members, such as being denied access to shelters. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make alleged safe spaces open and inclusive of all members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
More work needs to be done to improve the relationship between the police and LGBTQIA+ people. Slow efforts are being made to improve this, but LGBTQIA+ people who spoke to M&G recount several different experiences of homophobia and transphobia they have experienced when dealing with the police.
The DA makes a grand show of how LGBTQIA+ people feel safer in DA-run cities, specifically Cape Town. However, this is not because of the work of the party — the mechanisms of DA governance still actively discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people and make them feel unsafe. The alleged safety of Cape Town arises from its reputation of having a tolerant culture, even though many LGBTQIA+ people will point out that this tolerance is limited to niche areas of the city.
The DA has shown brief moments of supporting the LGBTQIA+ people, such as its private member bill to ban conversion therapy or the Western Cape department of health’s partnership with institutions like the Transgender Clinic and the Ivan Toms Centre for Men’s Health.
However, the DA’s lack of condemnation of the words of party members likeZille and its failings regarding providing LGBTQIA+ inclusive services speaks volumes. The DA needs to realistically assess how it can support LGBTQIA+ people, particularly if it wants to claim to help this community.
Cassandra Roxburgh is a Cape Town-based transfeminine freelance journalist.