Focusing on the rainbow behind the dark clouds

Thuli Mjwara, IAM Process Coordinator

In the US, June’s Pride month commemorates the protests that culminated in the Stonewall riots in 1969. In South Africa, the first pride was led by Simon Nkoli in October 1991, reclaiming the streets for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) persons who deserved to enjoy the “freedom” that was unlocked in 1994. Simon Nkoli was an anti-apartheid, gay rights, and AIDS activist and was vocal in the role of LGBTIQ+ persons during the apartheid struggle and the importance of the recognition of this aspect.  He advocated for equal access of the human rights for LGBTIQ+ persons as equal to their cisgender heteronormative counterparts. Today, our timelines and events are filled with the ever-present rainbows and Pride celebrations worldwide. 

In South Africa, June is also when we commemorate Youth Day in remembrance of the Soweto uprisings of school children and youth protests of 16 June 1976 that transformed into a countrywide movement. Young people took to the streets, marching against the use of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in government schools. Police retaliated with violence, beating and shooting at the protesting youth. Local and international news was filled with the images of Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu through the streets as Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole runs beside them.

The 1992 movie Sarafina! captures the story of the Soweto uprising. Sarafina, played by Leleti Khumalo, a young woman who dreams of being a stage actress. She is frustrated by her mother’s acceptance of servanthood as a domestic worker in a white household. Sarafina joins the youth protests with her peers after her teacher, Mary Masombuka (played by Whoopi Goldberg) is arrested.

“Freedom is coming tomorrow. Get ready Mama, prepare for your freedom. Freedom is coming tomorrow” – Sarafina

In 2021, Leleti Khumalo’s voice is still blasted across radios, television, and social media as South Africans, wearing school uniforms, participate in the Sarafina dance challenge. The COVID-19 regulations moved this year’s celebrations to virtual platforms, where the hashtags #SarafinaChallenge #Youthday trended on Twitter. Yet the question remains, when is this arrival of freedom really coming? Our “rainbow nation” is still waiting.

When can we truly celebrate freedom coming for ALL?

In South Africa, freedom came packaged with suffrage, the ability to move freely without fear of arrest or violence, and access into spaces that Black African (inclusive of Indian and Coloured people) were previously excluded from. These spaces ranged from beaches, benches, restaurants, faith spaces to types and levels of employment, occupations, romantic relationships, and family dynamics. In 1994, Black African people voted for freedom, and the South African Constitution became the cornerstone that shaped a country that not only recognises all those who live in it but strives to protect and ensure equal access. Legal reform was put in place to create this ideal society yet societal attitudes, stigma and discrimination still hound those who find themselves marginalized. 

In the “free” South Africa, people who are in same-sex relationships find themselves prey to homophobic and transphobic attacks (physically and virtually). Since the 12th of February 2021, the list of brutal murders has escalated to 14 persons. Activists of the LGBTQI+ community released a statement calling for government’s urgent response to the attacks and participated in a high level meeting with Minister Ronald Lamola, Deputy Minister John Jefferies, and Director-General Advocate Dr Mashabane, to demand more action from government to respond to the gruesome attacks on LGBTIQ+ people in communities across the country. The response was a letter listing planned internal reforms, the promise to fill the existing vacancy of a LGBTIQ+ directorate, and a promise of support to those who have played a crucial role on the National Task Team on hate crimes. However, this is not enough! Protest marches led by the LGBTIQ+ community were held in Cape Town, Gqeberha, Northwest, and court demonstrations at Vaal and Ntuzuma court were held to maintain pressure on this matter. 

The questions I am left to struggle with remain: when is this freedom arriving? When do we celebrate this freedom? how do I celebrate Pride with others across the world when being LGBTIQ+ within our communities remains a high risk? This is further burdened by being a womxn, openly living with another womxn. We are pushed to shift our celebrations back into private spaces with the risks we are facing, regressing the advocacy and legal wins for freedom. It can feel like this time of rainbows and celebration are hidden under a dark cloud of continued oppression.

Celebrating our wins, in whatever form they come

Despite the setbacks and worries about when our true freedom will really come, I was blessed to receive news of a number of people’s wins during this journey of being this month:

  • One person is recovering very well from top surgery that they have been needing.
  • One person went back to church after 16 years of leaving the space and the congregation welcomed and affirmed his identity. They seated him amongst the leadership and invited him to read the scripture.
  • One person moved from a living space that had her trapped in a nightmare of violence and suicidal episodes.
  • One person launched a platform to share their poetry – after years of being a closeted poet.

No, they are not the freedom for all that we have worked for all these years, yet all these wins are worth celebrating! These are just a few yet they are so meaningful for a community that has had to constantly (re)claim their existence. 

So, this month of June, I celebrate you! No matter the size of the goal or the duration it took to get there, this June is about you and your wins. Let’s find the rainbow under this dark cloud. It is hard to stay positive and in good health whilst constantly on alert, so to the activists: take the time out to rest and reboot.