Fear breeds bravery as LGBT+ South Africans resist 'war on queerness'

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 13 May 2021 09:40 GMT

Members of the Sebokeng LGBT+ community sing and dance while holding rainbow flags and posters outside a magistrates court in South Africa. May 7, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

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Recent murders of LGBT+ South Africans have spurred calls for urgent government action

By Kim Harrisberg

SEBOKENG, South Africa, May 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three months ago, Chippa Mohanoe's fiancée was stabbed in the neck and killed in front of their neighbours in South Africa's Sebokeng township.

Every day since, Mohanoe had to push past his fear of a repeat punishment for being transgender, hoping a high profile will stifle the homophobia that he says killed his fiancée and at least seven other LGBT+ South Africans in recent months.

Fear is making him brave.

"I am still here and I don't want to hide, I will make sure the justice system upholds her memory," Mohanoe said outside court after the man accused of her murder was denied bail.

Mohanoe, who is 30, said his fiancée, Bonang Gaelae, was stabbed because people thought she was a lesbian.

Now friends and LGBT+ allies are massing in public: a vital show of defiance against the spate of hate crime.

Despite living in the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage - back in 2006 - and under a constitution that guards against discrimination based on sexual orientation, LGBT+ people say they fear for their lives every single day.

All the recent murders - at least eight known to LGBT+ groups since mid-February - happened in townships, where activists say there is less policing and dense housing that makes it harder to hide away.

Yet activists refuse to lie low.

Spurred by the killings, they are gathering online, massing at courts, police stations and victims' homes to offer the support they say their government has failed to give.

Most hate crimes cases go undetected, according to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, because witnesses are reluctant to come forward.

"This is a crisis, and it is worse than we thought, it is a war on queerness," said Kamva Gwana, 23, an organiser from the online LGBT+ movement Queer Lives Matter.

"We demand the rights given by our constitution," Gwana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Chippa Mohanoe, whose fiancée was recently killed, poses for a photo in Sebokeng, South Africa. May 7, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

'PUTTING PRESSURE'

About 30 people sang and danced outside Sebokeng magistrates court last week, rainbow flags draped on shoulders and posters held aloft, in a display of LGBT+ solidarity.

"We are here to show support to Bonang's family, and for the court to know we are watching," said Sidwell Lengatsa, 36, a coordinator at Vaal LGBTI, a local rights group

"We want justice to be served."

Vaal LGBTI supports victims of homophobic hate crimes and accompanies them to police stations, therapy and court cases.

"These recent murders have made us afraid to express ourselves, but we are here, we are humans as well, and we don't owe anyone an explanation," said Lengatsa on the sidelines of the crowd as supporters celebrated bail being denied.

Lengasta said Vaal LGBTI has recently been attending almost weekly court hearings to support victims and their families.

"We love our community, but we are volunteers, we are unpaid and it is a challenge," said Azania Sengwayo, project manager for Vaal LGBTI, who said even finding the funds to get to hearings was a challenge.

Gwana from Queer Lives Matter echoed Sengwayo's frustration.

"NGOs are doing the work every day but they are under-resourced, they need support from the international community to enact real change," said Gwana.

Yet the murders have only emboldened them, said Gwana.

In early April, dozens of LGBT+ doctors, artists, lawyers, students and creatives marched to parliament demanding urgent government action. They also began fundraising to support families of the recent victims.

"We need to keep putting pressure. If there is no reaction, no arrests, it sends a message to perpetrators that they can do as they please and get away with it," said Sengwayo.

Sidwell Lengatsa and Azania Sengwayo, from Vaal LGBTI, pose for a photo in Sebokeng, South Africa. May 7, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

HATE CRIMES BILL

The murders of eight gay and lesbian South Africans have sent shockwaves through all the country's LGBT+ communities.

"We caution against saying these are the only cases because hate crimes are so under-reported," said Roché Kester, hate crimes manager for a local LGBT+ rights group, OUT.

OUT helps victims get medical services and counselling, launches legal cases then monitors progress to ensure there actually is some.

OUT, along with 20 LGBT+ and human rights groups, compiled a list of demands for government in mid-April, a few days after Lonwabo Jack, a gay man who had just celebrated his 22nd birthday, was found murdered in Nyanga township in Cape Town.

Among its demands: enact the Hate Crimes Bill, create LGBT+ support desks in each province and run LGBT+ sensitisation programmes for government institutions.

The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was drafted in 2016 but remains on the table.

It aims to reduce offensive speech and criminal acts motivated by prejudice towards minorities.

Parliament said the bill has been delayed by complex legal holdups, while some journalists and religious groups fear it could limit free expression.

LGBT+ activists disagree.

"It would give our community more room to call out crimes, we could pursue these in a court directly instead of having cases that go on for years as we debate definitions of what is and isn't hate speech," said Gwana.

Members of the Sebokeng LGBT+ community sing and dance while holding rainbow flags and posters outside a magistrates court in South Africa. May 7, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Kim Harrisberg

FIGHTER

In OUT's recent demands, activists called on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to condemn the attacks.

He listened and chose Freedom Day on April 27 - marking the first democratic elections 27 years prior - to heed their call.

"As a country we must say 'no' to homophobia and all forms of intolerance against members of the LGBTQI+ community," Ramaphosa said, insisting hate crimes would not be tolerated.

But LGBT+ groups say his words fell short of action.

"It's a step in the right direction but we need remedial plans, we need all our memorandum points to be addressed, and this should have happened after the first murder, not the sixth," said Kester.

As LGBT+ activists wait for the bill to be enacted, they are pledging to stay visible - despite the risks this may bring.

"I am a shy person, but I am also a fighter," said Mohanoe, revealing the fresh scar on his wrist, where he was stabbed.

"I tried to fight off Bonang's killer and I couldn't, but I will fight now," he said.

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(Reporting by Kim @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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