An open letter to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, by Greyson V Thela

Dear Mr President,

History tells us that you played an integral role in the emancipation of many people living in South Africa since 1972. You have had the privilege of truly understanding the suffering South Africans have undergone and continue to experience for over 50 years now. I can imagine that running an administration and effectively governing a population of 59 million people, is no easy task. You have had 17 predecessors, four of which were elected democratically post-apartheid. My assumption would be that you have taken heed of the past mistakes incurred. 

As young people, we were misled to believe that the arms of state would protect the dignity, freedom and improve the lives of ALL people in the new incarnation of the Republic of South Africa. This has not, in fact, been the reality. Mr President, the first scourge of hate crimes that we faced as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in South Africa was documented in 2006, with more than 31 deaths of black lesbians. That violence continues today, with more than 40 cases of hate crimes registered since March 2021, with Gauteng and the Western Cape as the epicentre of the violence. 

“I sincerely promise at all times to promote that which will advance and to oppose all that may harm the Republic”. Mr President these were your words, your oath of office. We cannot say with full conviction and certainty that you have opposed all that has been harming our community and reacted promptly to bring relief. Where does the problem lie? Budgeting? Staffing? Corruption? Cisgender privilege? Not yet enough of a crisis, perhaps?

Mr President, we need swift justice, speedy finalisation of cases and harsher sentences handed down for these hate crimes. Setting up the Gender Based Violence Command Centre was a positive step forward, but it has proven to have its limitations. Its nature limits its responses to reactive case management, rather than proactive initiatives to educate and prevent violence in the first place. It also does little in the way of recognizing and addressing same-sex/queer partner violence, training for law enforcement, or education to combat the culture of toxic masculinity that plagues our nation. Even when cases are brought into the system, there is rarely the swift resolution that we need as cases languish in the courts.

The Gender Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) Response Fund launched in February 2021, is also a terrific initiative. With pledges totaling more than 60 million rand from the private sector, it promises to fund civil society initiatives addressing the range of intersecting challenges that womxn face that make them vulnerable to GBVF. The concern is whether the fund would be used for its intended purpose, and will the programs it funds truly address the intersectional nature of the violence of bodies? 

Civil society has alerted the highest office in the land of these ongoing hate crimes, with little response. The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was presented to Parliament for adoption, seeking to provide pragmatic results. It addresses prejudice, responds to violence and any crime fuelled by intolerance based on identity, and speaks to both criminal and civil cases. It is an important bill, but its adoption has continued to be side-lined time and again. 

For such complex issues, an inter-ministerial committee with real authority that produces results is needed, as the challenges facing LGBTI people don’t only produce violence against individuals, but also systemic violence and limited opportunities to thrive. The community has high unemployment rates, and trans and gender diverse people, in particular, are often unable to access essential services such as banking, buying or leasing properties, or inclusive basic education spaces. As you can tell, the system was never built for us, and systemic problems require systemic solutions. 

We implore you to take action, Mr. President. The lives of South Africans are at stake. We ask that you uphold your oath of office and make it a priority to oppose all that will harm your people, and find ways to concretely advance our lived realities as LGBTI people. Don’t let another day go by, another death be recorded without justice, another opportunity to improve the lives of ALL South Africans and those living within the borders of this beautiful country. We implore you to take action.