It is hard not to feel pessimistic when it comes to 16 Days of Activism. The killers of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, two lesbian activists murdered in Soweto in July, have still to be brought to book. The murder of Thokozane Qwabe in Ladysmith remains unresolved. And, as I write this, another two lesbian women have been targeted for attack at a township gay bar, followed, and then shot: one of them fatally.
These recent violent attacks and murders have left many of us deeply saddened and enraged. Many more are non-plussed. Yet, these attacks on lesbian women are nothing new. For each of these women, there are hundreds more who are raped, to prove a point by men and communities who do not approve of their sexuality.
To compound matters, government leaders remain silent about such incidents of extreme prejudice. Whilst South Africa boasts a myriad of laws that protect against discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, which leaders often trot out with great aplomb during the 16 days of Activism, such laws are meaningless in the face of ongoing gender-based killings. As women, and as lesbians, our bodies and our sexualities are quite literally under attack.
In the midst of trying to make sense of the brutality meted out to women every day, through rape, murder and sexual assault, the question arises: How do we deal with hate? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that as South Africans, we are steeped in hate – arguably the most pernicious survivor of the apartheid era.
Such hatred forms part of why we rape and kill each other. Women are frequently the target of displaced anger and disempowerment as expressed through violence. Lesbian women in particular seem to be increasingly singled out for attack in actively homophobic communities. The level of violence against women in South Africa is perhaps the truest barometer of our progress, or lack thereof, to healing and reconciliation, as a society.
Our relatively new social commitment to our Constitution, which enshrines the core, values of equality, dignity and freedom, demands of us to address the matter of hatred head on. Why should we have to tolerate the killing and the raping, and be silenced by the promise/veneer of the Constitution?
What is done in our homes, on our streets and in the heart our communities is the very antithesis of these values. There is neither celebration nor justice in that.
People hate along a continuum. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me” is all but a nursery-rhyme lie. It is the attitudes, beliefs and words that provide the impetus for the sticks and stones. For hatred that is acted out in turn establishes and reestablishes particular forms of social power, through the means of abuse and violence.
“…our religious and traditional leaders should take a proactive position against all forms of hate-fuelled violence…”
We know the discourse only too well: It’s the lesbian that “needs” raping to “sort her out,” the wife that “needs a klap” to “keep her in line,” and the gay man that gets bashed for letting the team down. No coincidence that these manifestations of prejudice are directed at groups which are not exactly at the top of the social hierarchy. The point is that there are social systems that shape the nature and form of South Africa’s violence and gendered power is central to this.
Laws that promote equality and protect against discrimination, do not even shelter the most powerful. Why, after over a decade of democracy, do we not have one politician in the ruling party who is publicly out as gay or lesbian? One can only surmise that the fear of marginalisation, if not outright victimization, is just too great.
And despite the laws, there is little justice for women who suffer the consequences of systemic oppression. The handling of various cases of sexual harassment against senior male government leaders, despite policy and legislation designed to protect women from gender abuse, are a case in point.
And the afore-mentioned lesbian murders remain nameless statistics in the bowels of an unresponsive criminal justice system. The insidious thing about systemic oppression is that it pretends that it’s not there. It’s the elephant in the room. And we turn a blind eye as the trampling continues.
What we need are less policymakers pontificating and more unequivocal voices that say “this is not acceptable.” We need less rhetoric and more action in communities, not in the hallowed walls of conferences and imbizos. When does hate become a crime? Unfortunately only when our legislature and political leaders decide it should. Until then, the prejudice that underpins gender-based violence is kept invisible, and the transformation required to build a non-discriminatory and rights-based culture is thwarted.
Instead of the preoccupation with the spurious notion of “moral regeneration,” our religious and traditional leaders should take a proactive position against all forms of hate-fuelled violence. This would require bold positions on bigotry and discriminatory rhetoric, in contradiction to the hate speech that is often shaped through religious and cultural narratives.
“Homosexuality is unAfrican,” taken to its logical conclusion, may be used to “justify” victimisation. “Homosexuality is a sin,” may also be evoked to the same end. There’s nothing cultural or religious about beating your wife or about driving your lesbian child out of home. That’s called oppressive power, and it happens through patriarchy – often under the guise of “culture.”
During this year’s 16 days of activism I challenge our leaders to say and do something about the rapes and murders of lesbian women, the many women who are killed by their male partners, everyday, and those women who continue to be harassed, even by male political leadership. Or are we headed for another 336 days of silent passivity?
By Melanie Judge
Melanie Judge works with OUT LGBT Well-being. (This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.)