I’m neck deep in tapes and editing and I get the email below. Its from the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee (EPOC), which was the first organisation I filmed with for my documentary on homophobic hate crimes in SA. (https://prideandprejudicecrimes.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/pride-and-prejudice-crimes-where-pride-is-political/). The following email came as a sharp reminder for me that highlighting prejudice based crimes, and ongoing efforts to tackle them, is as important as ever. Please read it:

Good evening

My name is Bontle Khalo from the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee (EPOC) an LGBTI rights group based in Kwa-Thema: Springs, Gauteng: South Africa.

Over the past few weeks, South African townships have suffered a series of murders in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community. The first being of Thapelo Makutle, a 23 year old Gay man in Kuruman, who was killed after having an argument with highly homophobic people, who are also suspected of killing him. The second victim was Phumeza Nkolonzi, who was shot three times in front of her family, in Nyanga: Cape Town. The third victim, Andritha Morifi, a young Lesbian woman in Limpopo who was killed in the most brutal manner. The fourth victim was Neil Daniels, a Trangender in Cape Town. Lastly, Sanna Supa, a Lesbian woman from Soweto was shot dead in her home. There are probably more cases that we do not know about.

Even though South Africa is a country filled with crime, we at EPOC believe that these were not random killings but are homophobic attacks on the LGBTI community, the pattern in which they occurred makes us sure of this. The constitution of this country is meant to protect LGBTI rights, but we feel that not enough is being done to find the perpetrators of these crimes, our matters are not taken seriously enough and we are outraged at how incompetent our justice system is and that LGBTI people are still treated very poorly in government institutions by non-sensitised, homophobic and hateful service providers.

We are seriously in need of the media, groups such as yourselves, who have previously shown interest in our stories to assist us in getting our cries heard and in helping us ensure that we can get in touch with the government quickly and effectively. Through documenting our struggles, we believe that you will be helping us create awareness regarding LGBTI issues and hopefully assisting us in eradicating these brutal murders on innocent people.

Kindly get in touch with myself, Bontle Khalo (073 185 3961/bontle.khalo@yahoo.com) or Ntsupe Mohapi (073 226 3287/ntsupe@mighty.co.za).

Your positive response will be greatly appreciated.

Kind Regards
Bontle

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It has been well over a week since it emerged onto the internet, and I’ve been a little obsessed with the whole Kony2012 saga. I am beginning to get the impression that friends, family and random strangers have grown fearful of mentioning the subject in front of me.

If some naïve person dares, they soon get a look from a knowing previous Kony conversation participant that says something along the lines of “don’t get her started” or “back away slowly” or “you only wanted to make small talk didn’t you? Oh shame! I’d get comfortable if I were you!”

One of the reasons the debate has pushed my buttons so much is that as a journalist and a recently returned development worker I’ve been around the houses in my own mind about what motivates me to work, to tell peoples stories and to have spent some time in Africa doing just that.

I’ve gone from being a journalist, to being a media ethics advocate… in Africa, to being a journalist in Africa, and now a combination of it all and what that has made me, based back in Ireland again.

I firmly believe that news is important, and that people’s stories can change minds, alter perspectives and contribute to real and positive change. But I am just as keenly aware that journalism, whether created by an NGO or a mainstream media outlet, has its weaknesses.

Journalists are asked to make stories “relatable.”

When it comes to stories that feel far away from an audience, that can mean rolling out the celebrities – enter George Clooney (who has just returned from filming in the Nuba Mountains, in the border area between Sudan and South Sudan), Angelina Jolie (who attended the ICC for its landmark guilty verdict against Congolese war criminal Thomas Lubanga), and Ben Affleck (who, in response to Kony2012, wrote “Westerners Are Not And Will Never Be The ‘Saviors’ Of Africa”, including some information on the work his own organization is doing in DRC).

And it’s not just the mass appeal of US celebs that has been harnessed to make people care about issues outside their own backyard. We do it in Ireland. For example, over the last number of years trips by the Rose of Tralee to VSO’s overseas projects have succeeded in generating plenty of media interest.

Making people care is worthwhile, this is not in doubt. And while clearly suffering from a dose of cynicism, I’m not oblivious to the fact that audiences respond to people they respect and look up to, informing them about issues that may otherwise fall off their radar. Without many of these willing celebrities we may not be talking about the Nuba Mountains, or Thomas Lubanga’s recruitment of child soldiers.

Invisible Children didn’t use a box office name. Instead it used cute, white, blonde-haired, American Gavin, the film-makers own child. As he learned about Joseph Kony’s Ugandan child soldiers, so did this audience. Did this make the story of Kony, however simplified and outdated, relatable to millions? Abso-bloomin-lutely!

However I felt the most powerful thing to emerge from the Kony2012 saga was the critical response from Ugandans. For me, responses from Musa Okwonga, Rosebell Kagumire and TMS Ruge cut through the noise.

Invisible Children’s video was widely criticised as being over simplified, patronising and inaccurate. Why did we need to hear a father explaining a conflict to care? But then why do we need Ben Affleck to critique it?

For these answers we, the media consumers, will have to look at ourselves. The world’s worst atrocities shouldn’t need to be accompanied by a video capturing an American child being born, or an a-list celebrity’s distress, for us to care. We just should.

As an Irish person currently producing a documentary on homophobic hate crimes in South Africa this isn’t simply an abstract debate for me. I had to question and justify why I took my camera to South Africa to ask those who are attempting to make a difference in challenging homophobic attitudes, and the violence that has all too often accompanied them, to speak to me.

This was not my story. I was behind the camera. Those in front of it were the South African men and women who let me into their lives, so that I could record their stories. But I’ll hold off on any premature self-congratulation, not least until the project is finished and the reviews are in.

Invisible Children’s Ben Keesey was quoted last week as saying: “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white.”

The black and white analogy was a poor choice, especially in light of assertions that this video had “unpleasant echoes of colonialism.” However Ben also missed the point that the video glossed over what didn’t fit the brief, it ignored the uncomfortable grey.

I’ll say one thing though, ethical journalism is difficult. Even without plonking a celebrity, or a cute kid, front and centre to win the hearts and minds, there are a myriad of obstacles that make important journalism difficult to do, and opinion changing stories a mine-field to navigate.

Issues such as bearing in mind the best interests of those brave enough to open up to a journalist, and ensuring that journalism empowers rather than cripples or stigmatises are for another day.

I think journalists of every race, creed and colour should continue to tell news, expose atrocities, and shine a light on that which needs to be seen. I think people, including celebrities, should continue to care. However, I think that those who are just passing through need to take a back seat.

Stories belong to those who experience them. We need to shake the need for any glossy familiar enticement to listen.


Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

 

Banging on the door can’t be easy. Being the person or the organisation that says “no” or “no more” or “that’s not good enough” could be viewed as a thankless and never ending task. So when I arrived in Cape Town to find Free Gender founder Funeka Soldaat up to her tonsils organising, mobilising for and participating in three protests in one week I had to admire her dogged determination and energy.

As we walked to the internet café, a day after I’d met Free Gender’s founder, Funeka told me a story about a woman she once knew. I had already attended two of the community protests in which Free Gender was involved, and Funeka was on her way to update the Free Gender blog. On the short walk from her house in Khayelitsha, she recalled how the woman, whose family had failed to accept her once she came out as a lesbian, used to come to see her when she worked with the Triangle Project. On discovering that the woman was living on the streets Funeka offered her a place to stay, and one day the woman confided that she was HIV positive. She then went on to offer Funeka some words of advice, telling her she had to learn to let things go and that she couldn’t change things.

These words had a real impact on Funeka Soldaat, but not as they had been intended. She told me how they had stung and insulted her; that they flew in the face of everything she stood for. “Letting things go” simply didn’t sit with who she was, she said, she couldn’t let injustices pass unchallenged. Instead she would fight.

A common thread linked the three protests that week – justice, or its apparent illusiveness in Cape Town’s townships, especially in Khayelitsha and Nyanga. Protestors demanded access to justice for the community, and especially, though not exclusively, for its lesbian women who had experienced violent attacks, rapes and murders.

The visibility of dissatisfaction, the hum of activity and effort and the volume, both in sound level and quantity, of protest songs was no accident that week. Every painted poster, each protest and all of the organisation branded t-shirts on display built towards Friday 7th October.

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

Five years after she was beaten to death by a large gang of young men and teens on the streets of Khayelitsha where she lived, a full court room and hundreds of protesters outside, would find out if anyone would be found guilty of the murder of 19 year old Zoliswa Nkonyana

This case is the very reason Free Gender exists. It came into being because of how difficult it was for local lesbian women and others to attend the case because they were afraid. Violence and intimidation were not just the hallmarks of this attack, but apparently of the case that followed. One of the witnesses, Laura Cungata, was put into a witness protection programme for that very reason.

But under the umbrella of Free Gender, lesbian women from Khayelitsha attended the court proceedings more anonymously, as activists alongside straight men and women. And side by side with other organisations, their presence became one of the only predictable things in this case.

Former Director of the Triangle Project Vanessa Ludwig was also among those who attended from the earliest days of this case. Speaking to the hundreds that had gathered at Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Court on Friday 7th October she recalled how attendance back then could be counted in the tens and twenties. Friday’s protesters represented all sorts of interests, from access to HIV treatment, to gender justice and gay rights, but there was also a very visible and very loud group of out lesbian activists.

Free Gender may have originally provided an umbrella under which lesbians could shield themselves from prying or menacing eyes, but that manifestation has been thoroughly ditched, and in its place Free Gender has become a platform on which lesbians from this community stand, proclaim their sexual orientation and shout “enough.”

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

The day before the trial, Funeka’s living room was filled with young activists cutting cardboard, prying open paint tins and coming up with poster captions. One read “Today’s the day” and another, in a play on the World Cup catch phrase from the year before, proclaimed “Feel it, justice is here.” But as well as this optimism there was anticipation and nervousness.

These were followed the next day by excitement, joy, frustration, exhaustion and disappointment. There was also some justice. After five years and around 40 postponements, four men were found guilty of murdering Zoliswa Nkonyana.

Three more were acquitted. The judge reportedly found that a case had not been proved against one, and that the other two young men had been in custody at the time of the murder. In September two more accused were also acquitted and released.

Funeka Soldaat was in some ways relieved, and in others frustrated. Her fears around how this case was handled were such that she had worried no-one would be found guilty. This fear, at least, could be put to bed. She and other activists could also celebrate the fact that the judge found that Zoliswa’s sexual orientation was a motive in this horrific crime. This is a South African first, though she is not the first lesbian woman to have been brutally killed.

Zoliswa’s friend Pindiswa was there that night, and reportedly gave evidence to the court that what started with taunting and verbal abuse about being gay in the toilet of a tavern escalated into a gang beating the two girls, and in Zoliswa’s case, fatally.

In the campaign to recognise prejudice driven crimes against lesbian women this is significant, though celebrations were hardly jubilant.

Zoliswa’s mother doesn’t talk to the press and I can hardly blame her. For five year’s she has endured. Mrs Nkonyana has shown up for evidence, idiocy and postponements, all the while reminded of the loss of her 19 year old daughter. Of twenty alleged attackers, she has seen nine brought to trial, but not without having to hear the news that some escaped to be re-detained later, and ultimately that five were found not guilty.

I was curious about what type of young woman Zoliswa was. Who was this teenager whose name that has become synonymous with lesbian struggle against prejudice? According to Funeka, she was never interested in “activism.” No, as a soccer player her interest lay in sports. But though her passions were never political, she has inspired a struggle that seeks to give voice to young lesbian women and dedication to the cause of making life better, more just and most importantly safer.

That men have been convicted of Zoliswa’s murder and that a judge has recognised that this crime was motivated by prejudice are two positives. Another is the work that Free Gender is doing with local police, though this has not been without its speed bumps either. Still, that the South African Police Service (SAPS) co-sponsored the first black lesbian conference in a township in Khayelitsha in August this year marks a powerful progress point. To remind police of commitments made, Free Gender members often wear the t-shirts from the conference when they protest. And their concerns don’t end with the handling of Zoliswa’s murder.

The body of another young lesbian woman, Nontsikelelo (Ntsiki) Tyatyeka, was found in a dustbin just meters from her home in neighbouring Nyanga in September, almost exactly a year after she had gone missing. However Ntsiki’s family must continue to wait before they can bury their daughter. Delays at state laboratories mean that her family are still waiting for DNA results confirming her identity. In the meantime they cannot lay her to rest.

This, accompanied by rising crime rates in Nyanga, especially murders, led Free Gender to join forces with Triangle Project, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Sonke Gender Justice to march to the police station with a memorandum of demands… not an uncommon occurrence among campaign groups, or for Free Gender itself for that matter.

Major General Roberts met protesters outside the police station and signed the memorandum, making a commitment to respond to it within ten days. Protesters are still waiting, but not without follow up phone calls and further promises to respond.

I’ve talked to many activists in the course of this documentary, many of whom are understandably growing tired of the run around, ducking, diving and general fobbing off.

I’ve also talked to lesbian women who have had their rape and assault cases postponed time and time again, leading to anger, frustration and a complete lack of faith in the justice system.

On the day that I met her, at the first of three protests in one week I asked Funeka Soldaat if she ever grew tired? Her response: “No, people told us we would never succeed against apartheid, and we did. This is just another struggle. We have to keep going.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I arrived in Port Elizabeth the day after Soweto Pride. I was joining the Gay Pride Bus and already on board were the designer of the new South African Gay Flag Eugene “Huge” Brockman, his partner Henry, fellow activist Luanna, documentary film maker Prince Angelo, three drag artists, Ms Lola Fine, Roxy La Rue and Genevieve La Coq, and a “go-go” dancer/performer by the name of Yvo Leo.

A la Priscella Queen of the Desert, the bus was on cross country tour. The Gay Pride Bus was making its way from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and back. I understood from talking to “Huge” before we met that this tour aimed to promote the new South African Gay Flag, and with it tolerance, gay rights, and awareness of and money for efforts tackling homophobic violence, especially the targeting of lesbian women.

I looked at the itinerary before I left, and in each destination gay people, groups or venues were welcoming the bus. While that was all well and good, I wondered about the impact this tour might have and whether it would be preaching to the converted, like a Michael Moore movie where the only people screaming their assent from the aisles are those who already agree with the points being made.

So, with camera, tripod and a travel bag of essentials I squeezed myself onto the bus – no mean feat given the sheer number of boxes, bags, top hats and feathers jammed between the seats.

I was absolutely the plain Jane of the bunch, no make up, hair pulled back, in jeans, a t-shirt and wrecked converse. This was my work uniform, and in it I was prepared for running about and pulling and hauling my camera and gear about the place.

But my travelling companions were in full costume all of the time. They arrived to breakfast in drag, sailor costumes, or in Yvo’s case short shorts and little else. This was their uniform. We’d pull up at a petrol station for a toilet break, and, after ten minutes of scrambling over boxes and one another to get off the bloody bus, this entourage of colour and camp would be browsing the aisles looking for a snack and a soft drink. It was entertaining, it had a certain shock value, and it afforded an opportunity for conversations with curious customers and staff.

Late on Monday night, as we arrived intoFree State, we stopped for food. While we waited for our order Genevieve, drapped in a flag, chatted to shop assistants and petrol attendants, while the woman serving Roxy a burger at the Whimpy counter told her about her own gay brother, and how there were still problems with her parents accepting his sexual orientation. But there were also onlookers who appeared to have no desire to engage, who kept their distance and remained tight lipped.

Our destination that night was Bloemfontein, and we arrived after a 12 hour journey at 11.30pm. Spending a little over 24 hours there, Bloem was an interesting barometer.

This city, with a staunchly conservative reputation, threw up flashes of both unbridled enthusiasm, warmth and welcome, as well as potentially violent vitriol.

From the generosity of three gay guest house owners who not only put up the bus’s weary travelers for free, but fed and watered the troupe as often as the bus’s hectic schedule would allow, to Bloem’s first Pride on the Kovsies’ (University of the Free State) Campus, there was no doubt but that Bloem’s gay community were happy to see the flamboyant visitors.

That four white male Kovsies’ students made a video humiliating black University staff in 2007, leading to riots on campus and criminal proceedings, is a recent memory there and a reminder that integration isn’t easily achieved.

Similarly the reception given to the bus and its passengers as it pulled up outside a frat house on its way off campus following a party was a red flag that a warm welcome was not guaranteed.

The stop had been impromptu. The gay flag of SA team had earlier descended on a football pitch, where they had pretty much been politely ignored by the boys who were stuck into playing a game. Perhaps it was the warm reception received thus far, perhaps it was the absence of distain on the football field earlier, perhaps it was the few drinks that had been consumed at the party, or perhaps it was, as was argued later, that ‘this was what it was all about,’ but when the bus was passing the frat house lawn occupied by male students playing rugby, the idea of stopping was quickly muted and just as quickly the bus pulled up. Ms Lola Fine disembarked with her omnipresent enthusiasm, then Yvo Leo, while film-maker Prince wrangled with his equipment to follow them.

But there were no bemused smiles, instead there was latent aggression. “Get your fucking hard-ons out of our face” was one of the choice phrases uttered in Afrikaans. The mood quickly soured and the shouts from inside the bus issued instructions to “get back on board and get out of here”.

What happened next was an exploration of the means and methods of challenging intolerance and homophobia, the discomfort, the aggression and the fear. Thrashed out in the back of the bus was whether this was what needed to be done, to “step in front of the flag, rather than hide behind it” and to bring it to the straight community, especially to those it made the least comfortable. Others argued against “antagonising” those who were homophobic, saying that this sought to simply re-enforce prejudice and stereotypes.

From behind the camera, I wondered about it. For me the incident played out a lot of the questions I had. It was fairly fool-hardy to pull up a gay pride bus outside a straight frat house in the Free State late at night – but that statement is also loaded with prejudice, just the other way around. It was possible that a late night snack stop-over at a petrol station could have elicited the same reaction, it simply hadn’t. The fact of the matter was that this was the first time the bus had encountered uninhibited antagonism.

The in-your-face dress code was about engaging people, whether they liked it or not. The argument has been convincingly made that while gay men and women have a choice to dress garishly or to blend in; transgender people have no such option. So how would these frat boys have reacted to a transgender student walking past their lawn late at night? I can’t answer that, I can only leave the question hang there. The incident was also a reality check about homophobia and the physical threat in which it can manifest itself. It left the bus’s passengers angry at what had happened and at each other, and fairly shaken up.

Earlier in the day Genevieve had told me that as a student at this University, he had left a frat house on campus due to the homophobia and prejudice he had experienced, even though he wasn’t even out to himself fully at the time. It turned out that this was the same frat house. The next morning Genevieve’s own assessment of her emotional state was: “I’m scrambled eggs.”

I have no doubt that exhibitionist activism has reach – in newspapers, on television, and radio programmes, as well as in filling stations and pharmacies. It has got people talking, and when there is space for discussion a message beyond fun and feathers is communicated.

And what of the people who won’t want to engage, those who are angered or afraid? I don’t think the drag activists I met have given up on them, but a little more cautiously, they’re just working on the best way to start that conversation.

The theme of the 7th annual Soweto Pride was “African Pride: Queer Love is a Human Right,” and it was appropriate, though apparently co-incidental, that it landed on South Africa’s Heritage Day.

For the last two years Pride had been held in Meadowlands where a lesbian couple Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Massooa were raped, beaten and shot dead in 2007. This year though it followed a different route from the corner of Elias Motsoaledi and Mphuthi Street to Credo Muthwa Park. Marshals safely directed a few hundred protesters from an Engen Petrol Station, through the bustling street, where taxis honked their horns and cars edged past. And according to the Forum for the Empowerment of Women’s (FEW’s) Phindi Malaza, this is why the route was chosen. It was busy which meant the maximum possible exposure was afforded to the marchers baring signs with slogans ranging from “My mother’s a lesbian, so what?” to “I am African, I am Xhosa and I am a lesbian.”

One woman who was wearing beaded headbands wasn’t carrying a banner. Instead she chose to carry a Zulu shield. She was one of a number of protesters who chose to celebrate Pride and Heritage Day wearing her traditional clothing.

The reason that the theme “African Pride” was chosen was to pierce the idea that being gay is some colonial hangover, some white import, and something inherently un-African. Statements from Pride protesters shared the same theme: “I am a proud black African woman”, “I am African and I am gay, I have been to the mountain (to be circumcised) and today I’m celebrating my heritage”, “I grew up in a black township, this is who I am, I am an African lesbian.”

Credo Muthwa Park was filled with revellers, music and braai smoke (Heritage Day is also National Braai Day, but I suspect the braai stands would have been brought along regardless), but outside the wire fencing a group of men watched on as they drank beer in a driveway.  The majority of this group were keen to tell the camera how “this being Gay, this is not African,” and how they as men were raising their daughters to get married and have children “as it should be”. One told me he would kill his son or daughter if they came to him and told him they were gay.

The minority voice was that of two in the group who said they had no problem with lesbian and gay men celebrating their identities in their community, though one commented that he didn’t think many people shared his views. He also went on to say that he thought it would probably upset a lot of people that the gay community chose to do it on Heritage day.

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

Banners, multicoloured windmills and rainbow flags, it was carnival of colour and song, but a small one, and the political message underlying the festivities was clear from the t-shirts bearing the slogan “crush hate” scattered throughout the crowd.

Around one hundred men and women gathered on the streets of Kwa-Thema, leading a brightly decorated, though slightly haphazard float, through the township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Kwa-Thema is just one of two South African townships to host their own Pride. This Saturday it will be Soweto’s turn. Sitting in the broader area of Ekurhuleni, the event in Kwa-Thema is the third annual march organized by the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee (EPOC).

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

But those who took to the streets viewed this much more than a mere expression of pride, this was a platform to challenge and engage with the community, and a call to end violent expressions of anti-gay prejudice.

According to Malindi Mahlangu, an EPOC member and activist, Kwa-Thema’s Pride aims “to inform the community, or involve them in our struggle against the abusing and killing of gay people around them.” In April this year 24 year old Noxolo Nogwaza, who was also involved with EPOC, became the township’s latest victim of homophobic violence. Described as quiet and hard-working, she was raped and beaten to death on her way home from a local tavern in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning.

She was the third lesbian woman to have been killed in Kwa-Thema since 2008, and one of at least three killed in South Africa this year. When you talk to people in Kwa-Thema, gay or straight, the consensus is that these women were killed because they were out of the closet lesbians and the perpetrators were men who wanted to punish them because of their sexual orientation. These brutal killings are an extreme expression of homophobic violence, which also manifests itself in the rape and assault of lesbian women across the country.

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

Lesbian women are by no means the only women to experience rape and sexual assault in South Africa. A study by the Medical Research Council found the 1 in 4 South African men admitted raping a woman. Between March 2010 and March 2011 over 66,000 sexual assaults, including rape, were reported to police, but further MRC research has found that only 1 in 9 women report rape to the authorities. Homophobia combined with already startlingly high instances of gender-based violence statistics places lesbian woman further at risk.

According to EPOC’s Nstupe Mohapi “If you are a black lesbian woman in a township many people believe that you are doing something wrong, that you are doing something that is opposite to black culture. To them every woman needs a man, so why do you want to differ? Or they think that you are corrupting young people, that you’re going to change them… That’s why they rape lesbians, they say “maybe you haven’t tasted me as a man, that’s why you’re like this.”

There are national efforts afoot to designate homophobic violence a hate crime. Following a change.org petition with more than 170,000 signatures, and the death of Noxolo Nogwaza this year, the government established a Task Team on gender based and homophobic hate crimes. While a separate Hate Crimes Working Group has called for the inclusion of homophobic violence in long awaited Hate Crimes Legislation.

But grass roots activists are aware that change comes slowly. There are already plenty of rights on paper. South Africa’s Constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and the country was the first in Africa to legislate for gay marriage. Rape and murder are clearly punishable criminal offences, but while two men are serving a 32 year and a life sentence for the killing of Eudy Similane in Kwa-Thema in 2008, no-one has yet been charged or prosecuted for the killings of Girlie Nkosi in 2009 or Noxolo Nogwaza this year.

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

In defiance, in drag and high heels, in t-shirts and jeans, pushing prams and waving flags, a cross section of gay men and women came together in Kwa-Thema on Saturday under the banner “Crush Hate.” Home made signs carrying slogans including “You’re hate won’t make me straight” and “Remembering those who were raped and killed” were held high. Kwa-Thema’s Pride parades are political.

One onlooker, Kholofelo Mokolo said “Power to them, I think it takes quite a lot of courage to do it.” While another local man, Kevin Mokoena commented “Our community is not so much in support of these people[sic]… Within my family we have one who is gay [sic], but we are having trouble with him, because his mum fights with him a lot of the time, but he says “this is who I am and I will not change.”

Those attending these marches believe that Pride can have an impact close to home. Ahead of their own march in Soweto this Saturday, Phindi Malaza from the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) was in Kwa-Thema. Malaza is also a member of the government’s new task team. “There’s a need to claim these spaces, because we’re always told that homosexuality is Western” says Malazi, “we were born in these townships, and this is where we’ve made choices of loving who we want to love. So we need to claim these spaces so that people understand that we don’t have any [Western] influences, and that as much as people don’t want to accept it, we are here, these are our townships.”

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

While marchers earned some quizzical looks, other bystanders took photos or danced to the music pumping from float, and curious children followed the procession for much of the route.

“I think that’s ultimately what Pride is about,” said EPOC’s Bontle Khalo “we want to go out into the community, to just be loud, to let them see us and to let them join us most importantly, because when we have got the support of the community, and as soon as they know what is happening and don’t mind marching with us and making noise with us, that’s exactly what we want.”

Despite the buoyant atmosphere, it was noticeable that the number who chose to make the procession through the township was still quite low, though the crowd grew substantially for the after party at Ndaba Tree Park.

“I was a bit disappointed with the turnout of the people who marched,” said Khalo “I think mainly, people are still afraid to come out of the closet, people are afraid to be seen, and that’s perfectly understandable.”

Courtesy Melanie Hamman @MelanieHamman

Ok so this is by no means day one. I’ve been in South Africa for a week and a half,  I’ve attended one Pride, visited where two lesbian women have been killed, talked to activists, proud individuals, scared individuals, brave individuals and all of the above.

The topic of this documentary is a tough one, there’s no doubt. It’s very nature has meant that monitoring, analysing or cataloguing attacks on gay women and men has not really happened, and yet there are some things you can’t argue with.

A bustling township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, that had by all accounts been widely viewed as gay friendly, especially in the 80’s, has seen three lesbian women brutally killed, and in two cases violated, since 2008. Kwa-Thema’s gay and lesbian community are tight knit and vocal, and many of the local residents are appalled by what has happened where they live. But clearly there remain those within the community who continue to find the idea of a lesbian woman abhorrent, because in April this year, a 24-year old lesbian woman, Noxolo Nogwaza was raped and beaten to death, as she walked home in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning.

When I visited the site, and later went to where soccer international Eudy Simelane was killed in 2008, I was struck by how eerily similar the circumstances of their death were. Both had been out with friends in a bar, both had been on their way home, both attacks stuck out because of the savagery which which they were carried out, and both sites are strewn with rubbish, and people pass by the locations heading to and from where every they are going without any sign of recognition that something tragic happened here. Noxolo’s body was found near a path beside a big warehouse or factory style building, and near rows of houses where no-one apparently heard a thing on the night she was killed. The spot that marks where Eudy was found has been turned into a memorial bridge, but the roughly hewn concrete, with Eudy etched in it,  does little to sanctify her memory, especially as it crosses a stream choc-a-bloc with rubbish.

And then there’s Girlie Nkosi, she was fatally stabbed in 2009, again on her way home from a bar.  Her story is less well known, despite the fact that everyone I spoke to knew her very well. People visably light up when they talk about her, and yet its been next to impossible to find a photo of her. She wasn’t raped, and this may be one of the reasons why her story has slipped through the cracks. But the people I talk to don’t seem to have any doubt that her murder was motivated by the same hate and prejudice that led men to target Noxolo and Eudy.

Before I arrived local government members came to Kwa-Thema for a prayer service for Noxolo. Sympathies may have been shared, but no-one has yet been arrested or prosecuted for Noxolo’s or Girlie’s deaths. Two of the four men brought to trail for Eudy Simelane’s murder were jailed.

So, here I am, cataloguing what’s happened, and more importantly talking to women and men who are trying to make a difference. I’ve already come to realise that this project is going to require a hell of a lot of hard work, energy and an acceptance that sometimes, regardless or preparation and organisation, some things just don’t go according to plan.

But the stories of activism and activists are what keep me going. This is their documentary – I’m just the pushy Irish woman with the camera and all the questions!