BLACK LESBIANS: THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH by Malaika Wa Azania
“Violence against women and girls continues unabated in every continent, country and culture. It takes a devastating toll on women’s lives, on their families, and on society as a whole. Most societies prohibit such violence — yet the reality is that too often, it is covered up or tacitly condoned.”
Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General
A few years ago something happened that changed the way I viewed the world. A woman whom I knew was raped in my township of Meadowlands zone 8 in Soweto. Although she was older than me and thus, we were never really acquainted, I had seen her around the neighbourhood frequently and knew her only by sight. I also knew that she was openly lesbian. She was raped by a group of men who wanted to “cure” her of her homosexuality. This woman, whom I had never seen committing any acts of crime or doing anything that could be considered harmful to the community, was brutally violated by a group of men who also lived in our neighbourhood. After they had committed the savage act, they proceeded to assault her, leaving her lying in a pool of her own blood, where she was discovered later by members of the community, who found her unconscious.
It was not so much the act that shocked me, though that in it would have shocked anyone into paralysis. What hit me hard was the reaction of the zone 8 Meadowlands community to this inhuman act. Most people down-played the ruthless actions of the rapists and to a great extent, legitimised them. It was whispered in corners – by elders of the community – that the woman had “asked for it” because her actions were “undermining” men, with whom she was allegedly attempting to be equal. Some even went as far as to insinuate that indeed, the rape would “remind” her that she is a woman and thus, “cleanse” her of the disease that was afflicting her. The disease, according to them, was homosexuality. Apparently, it was a disease for two women to love each other. Apparently, loving another woman rated in the same level as having tumours in your cervix or leucocytes.
THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH
I was reminded of this story by another, more tragic one which took place only a few weeks ago in our beloved country. A young man from Kuruman in the Northern Cape province, Thapelo Makutle suffered a fate more diabolical. His body was found under a blanket with his throat cut and tongue removed and parts of his genitals had been cut off and placed in his mouth. According to reports, Makutle was killed over an argument as to whether he was transsexual or gay. By definition, a transsexual is a “person born with the physical characteristics of one sex who emotionally and psychologically feels that they belong to the opposite sex”. This is different to a gay person in that gay people, also known as homosexuals, are persons who are attracted to people of their same sex. This means men who are sexually attracted to other men and women to other women.
Another story that came back to my mind, which for almost a year I have refused to accept could have happened in our beloved country, is the one of yet another young Black girl whose life was brutally brought to an end for her sexual orientation. Noxolo Nogwaza, a 24 year old lesbian, was found lying in an alley in Kwa-Thema (Gauteng province) at about on the 24th of April 2011. Noxolo’s head was completely deformed. Both of her eyes were removed out of the sockets. Her head underwent so much blunt trauma that her brain matter had spilt out onto the ground. Her jaw was butchered so severely that her teeth were found scattered all around her dead body. Her face, once resembling an ebony sculptured beauty was crushed beyond recognition. Witnesses said that an empty beer bottle and a used condom were shoved up inside her genitals. Parts of the rest of her body had been stabbed with broken glass and when some of it was seen protruding from her dead flesh. A large pavement brick that is believed to have been used to crash her head was found by her side, covered in her blood.
Zoliswa Nkonyana was a 19 year old lesbian living in the Western Cape. One night while she was walking home from a local tavern in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, six men beat her to death with a golf club because she of nothing other than the fact that she was lesbian. Her father, who knew and accepted his daughter’s sexuality, witnessed her being killed. But in a township where to stand up against injustice is to sign your own death wish, he was too afraid for his own life to stop the killing of his own flesh and blood.
In 2008, yet another Black lesbian was viciously murdered in the same area where Noxolo had met her death. On a cold April morning, the body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Afrika's acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park located in Kwa-Thema. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. She too, like Noxolo, was found lying in a pool of her own blood. Simelane was an activist and equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema. When asked why they had beaten her up so viciously, the men who attacked her said that she was “fighting us back like a man”.
Madoe Mafubedu was a 16 year old who was repeatedly raped and stabbed until she died.
On a Sunday morning, the 7th of July 2007, two other Black women lost their lives in this war against lesbians. Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were found murdered next to a dumpsite in Meadowlands, the township where I was born and raised. Sigasa was found with her hands tied with her underpants and her ankles tied with her shoelaces, with three bullet holes in her head and three in her collarbone. According to some reports, they were tortured before being executed by the cruel murderers.
Other openly lesbian women who suffered the same brutality a few years ago in the Western Cape province include Luleka Makiwane. Makiwane was viciously raped by her cousin a few years before she died. She was a virgin. She contracted Cryptococci meningitis, a result of her HIV infection and died of AIDS in 2005 as a result of that rape.
In the Eastern Cape, yet another case of corrective rape that ought to have been engraved in our collective minds happened. A 24 year old lesbian named Nomsa Bizana was gang raped by five men at a party in Mthatha. Nomsa had been lured to the party by a “friend” who it later turned out had plotted with the five men to rape her friend as a way of “curing” her of homosexuality. Like the other women I have mentioned, Nomsa died. She died of complications as a direct result of the heinous assault.
There have also been many survivors, if they may even be called that, for how does anyone be called a survivor when their humanness has been killed? There is no such thing as a rape survivor; there is only a raped man and a raped woman. And one can even argue that rape is worse than murder, because with rape, even as you die inside, you still have to go through the motions of being alive.
A few months ago, a 13 year old girl was violently raped in the township of Atteridgeville in Pretoria, for coming out about her sexuality. A Cape Town Black lesbian, Millicent Gaika (pictured), also suffered the same fate. Returning from a night with her friends, the woman was raped for a gruelling five hours by a man who kept saying to her: “I know you are a lesbian. You are not a man, you think you are, but I am going to show you, you are a woman. I am going to make you pregnant…” But it was not the first time that Millicent was subjected to this brutality. In 2002, she had been gang-raped by four men for the same reasons.
The stories that I have quoted, shocking though they may be, are only the tip of an iceberg. There are many others like this. Black lesbians are being raped in our townships on a daily basis and we continue to debate and discuss every other issue except this one. It is herculean a task to even raise this matter because most people, even comrades who are supposed to have undergone a process of mental decolonisation and emancipation, are dismissive of the question of homosexuality and like the men who violate these women, believe that homosexuality. Unlike these monsters who take this a step further by “curing” lesbians, male comrades opt to simply turn a blind eye to this cruel injustice, refusing to label it for what it really is: a hate crime.
TO BE A BLACK LESBIAN IS WORSE THAN TO BE A BLACK WOMAN
Our country is facing many challenges that are born out of the legacy of colonialism and of apartheid. These problems are all products of the three great contradictions of class, race and the gender questions. While the majority of our people are victims of the first two, the latter is one that is designed to afflict mainly Black women (in particular those in rural areas and those who are lesbians). There is no argument that gay men, transvestites and other members of the populace are also victims of this issue. However, the reality of the situation is that those most at risk are Black women. Black lesbian women are thus the most wretched of the earth, for they suffer the triple oppression of classism, racism and sexism, but on the latter, the brutality is more pronounced.
The native majority of our country was dispossessed of its land and resources by a settler minority that appropriated itself ownership and control of our people’s sources of wealth (minerals and land). This resulted in the birth of apartheid, which, though only made a formal policy in 1948, had long been practised by the settler minority. The segregation, dehumanisation and killing of natives became characteristics of this policy. In 1994 this narrative closed its chapter when the country became a democratic republic. There is no debating that constructs of apartheid continue to be present; because for as long as the bulk of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of a few, the structural inequalities persist. So Black women, on top of being heirs to the throne of these inequalities and subjects of subjugation as a result of their pigmentation, are also heirs to the thorny throne of humiliation, more so if they are lesbians. Shocking though it may sound, the government of the Republic of South Africa is doing very little to address the humiliation that is experienced by lesbians.
The response from the government to the cases reported by homosexual women and the cases where these women have been killed is appalling to say the least. Only 1 in every 4 of the reported cases goes to court and even then, just over 4% of the cases result in the conviction of the perpetrator. Mathematically, that means more than 92% of the perpetrators of the rapes and murders go free. (A study conducted by Action Aid and published in March 2009 reported that between 1998 and 2003, at least 31 cases of corrective rape were reported. Of these 31, only 1 resulted in a conviction). The report goes on to say:
“It’s also worth noting that the law on hate crime is narrowly interpreted by the courts as only applying on the basis of race and gender. If they take it into account at all, judges will only consider sexual orientation as an aggravating factor when sentencing. They will not take it into account as part of the evidence. What this means practically is that the National Prosecuting Authority and the police do not record hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or collect evidence on this aspect of the case. Few or no resources are put into tackling this kind of crime.” (HATE CRIMES, THE RISE OF CORRECTIVE RAPE IN SOUTH AFRICA)
It cannot be correct that as a society we do not bring this issue into our discourse. Those of us, who claim to be agents of positive change and those who want to gear their energies towards the development of South Afrika and indeed, the Afrikan continent, have a responsibility to force this discussion into our national discourse so that the stigmatisation of Black lesbians in our communities ceases to find expression. As students who have the privilege of being pioneers of a better South Afrika, the task of massifying these debates and debunking myths that are designed to oppress lies in our hands.
I conclude this paper with a quote from a great revolutionary, former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, who said:
“The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, the result of a humanitarian or compassionate attitude. The liberation of women is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory. The main objective of the Revolution is to destroy the system of exploitation and build a new society which releases the potentialities of human beings... This is the context within which women`s emancipation arises”
Malaika Wa Azania
Student number: g12m1506
1st year BSS (Geological Sciences)
Member of the South African Students Congress (SASCO)
Cell phone number: 076 538 1557 or 079 421 4315