On 16 and 17 July, Activate – the University of Witwatersrand’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) student society – played host to an unprecedented and groundbreaking event in youth activism: a two-day conference dubbed the National LGBTI Youth Leaders’ Lekgotla.

The 38 delegates came from the LGBTI student societies of seven tertiary institutions:

Activate (Wits University); Lesbigay (Stellenbosch University); Loud-Enuf (University of Western Cape); OUTRhodes (Rhodes University); RainbowUCT (University of Cape Town); Up & Out (University of Pretoria) and; XX/Y Flames (University of the Free State).

The Lekgotla (a Sesotho-originated word meaning a meeting or gathering) was conceived as a forum where LGBTI youth would debate issues, exchange ideas and begin to define an agenda for advancing and realising LGBTI youth aspirations. It was also an opportunity for LGBTI youth to interface collectively with the organised LGBTI sector about how youth can better contribute to the work of LGBTI organisations and how youth issues can be better integrated in the work of these organisations.

Day One: A Beginning

The Lekgotla began on the Monday morning with the observation of a few moments of reverential silence in memory of two lesbian women who were murdered in the early hours of 8 July in Meadowlands. It then proceeded with a brilliant opening speech by the Lekgotla’s keynote speaker, Dr David Bilchitz, a Wits alumnus and himself a former co-chairperson of Activate.

He spoke about the need for all South Africans, queer and straight alike, to adopt a transformative perspective that challenges prejudice and encourages the entrenchment of freedom, equality and dignity in public and private discourse. The opening speech inspired all present and set the tone for the intensive workshop discussions that filled the remainder of the day.

During the morning and afternoon sessions, the delegates unpacked and worked through a range of issues that they saw as relevant to LGBTI youth and the wider LGBTI community. They identified such challenges as lack of knowledge and understanding within and about the LGBTI community, insufficient role models for LGBTI youth, lack of diverse social spaces for LGBTI youth outside of the club scene, weak linkages between LGBTI student societies and with the established LGBTI sector, sluggish state action in protecting gay and lesbian people and homoprejudice emanating from what was labelled the “centres of homophobia” – cultural and religious conservatism.

The discussions highlighted the reality that while the South African legal framework is advanced in providing rights to gay and lesbian people, it is not reflective of the reality on the ground, where homoprejudice, hate and discrimination still make life difficult, even dangerous, for many gay and lesbian people.

In a session of devising strategies in response to the identified problems, the students agreed that the main action areas were education, advocacy and activism and social organisation. Consensus coalesced around the need for the creation of a national network structure to co-ordinate communication and co-operation on LGBTI youth issues and activities, as a first step toward a national umbrella organisation that would include both campus-based student societies and other formations in the wider LGBTI youth sub-sector. This is an important development because it is usually difficult for many LGBTI youth to meet other young people like themselves if they are not in the clubbing scene or part of an LGBTI student society.

“…Youth have historically played an integral role in the struggle for equality, freedom, dignity and the realisation of a human rights-centred society in South Africa…”

Day Two: The LGBTI Youth Charter

The second day of the Lekgotla featured two important sessions. The first was a sector engagement session in which delegates received presentations from representatives of eight LGBTI organisations in the Joint Working Group (JWG), a national network of 17 organisations comprising the organised LGBTI sector.

The organisations represented were Behind The Mask (BTM), Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA), Good Hope Metropolitan Community Church (GHMCC), Jewish Outlook, Lesbian & Gay Equality Project (LGEP), OUT LGBT Well-being and Triangle Project.

This session was important because it achieved what delegates had highlighted as an important need for LGBTI youth: creating and solidifying links between LGBTI youth formations and the established LGBTI sector.

In the second session, delegates discussed the draft LGBTI Youth Charter which had been compiled by a working group during the morning, which led to a robust engagement on how it could be improved. The Charter will serve the purpose of highlighting the challenges facing LGBTI youth, outlining a broad vision for the realisation of LGBTI youth aspirations, and identifying areas for more intensive work to develop the youth sub-sector in the LGBTI sector.

Although not yet finalised, the document proved sufficient for an important event with which the Lekgotla was officially closed: a group reading of the draft LGTBI Youth Charter on the steps of the Constitutional Court, followed by the singing of the national anthem.

This powerful and poignant ceremony, marking a turning point in LGBTI youth mobilisation, highlighted three significant elements: the LGBTI Youth Charter – symbolising the initiative of youth in contributing to the advancement of a human rights culture in South Africa; the Constitutional Court – bastion and defender of Constitutional values and our democratic dispensation; and the national anthem – a hymn of supplication to Divine Providence for such future work to be blessed and to contribute to the common good.

Youth have historically played an integral role in the struggle for equality, freedom, dignity and the realisation of a human rights-centred society in South Africa. From the early days when the then-young Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo formed the ANC Youth League and persuaded the ANC leadership to switch from non-violent protest to armed struggle, to the intellectual resistance against apartheid formulated by Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele in the Black Consciousness movement, to the turbulence of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings, South African youth have shown themselves to be active participants in struggles against oppression and discrimination.

The fight against prejudice towards LGBTI people has been an important front in the ongoing effort to entrench the values and principles of our enlightened Constitution in our transforming society. In this struggle, LGBTI youth also want to make a contribution, in the same line of activism and advocacy as that of youth in years gone by. The National LGBTI Youth Leaders’ Lekgotla was the first leap forward in that journey.

Zac Mbhele

Zac is Chairperson of Activate

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