As a newly qualified tour guide I was excited to explore all the nooks and crannies of my country.
The idea was daunting to say the least: Townships are not the most popular places for lesbians to hang out these days, which made me more determined to change my perceptions, and hopefully yours, on one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations – Soweto.
Soweto is a vibrant, culturally rich township situated on the outskirts of Joburg. Once the home to one of the world’s greatest icons, Nelson Mandela, the town can be an intimidating place to the average white South African, and even more so to a white lesbian (thanks in large part to the recent spate of anti-lesbian hate crimes in townships).
Since I’m a professional tour guide and want to offer my clientele a realistic review of an African experience, I put my fear behind me and enjoyed the adventure into Soweto – a milestone of hope, history and home to many great South Africans.
Driving into Soweto with a group of tourists on the Old Potchefstroom Road, our tour bus comes to a stop at a squatter camp – my heart drops… I step out, nervous, but instead, friendly faces greet me. A local guide, Eric welcomes us and lets us know that both he and the other guides stand out here every day to welcome and accompany visitors into the squatter camp where they share stories about their lives.
Soweto is the largest township in the country, housing three million residents and welcoming 3200 foreign visitors every month. The township tour is fascinating and of even greater interest if you’re gay or lesbian.
Our first stop is at The Hector Pieterson Memorial. The museum is shrouded in sadness but also inspirational courage. It’s a place where the story of the June 16, 1976 uprising is depicted in pictures, videos and personal interviews with students.
The protest wasn’t only a rebellion against the white government at the time but is also a milestone in gay and lesbian history. In fact, it’s in part thanks to this event that the first South African Pride March in 1990 was conceived.
Busi our guide gives us a gay angle on the 1976 uprising: The famous protest represented a generational break. As my gay colleague Paul puts it in the Joburg Tracks exhibition, “That uprising was about children saying to their elders, ‘No! We are going to do things our own way!’ This physical stand made space for young gay people to come out too.”
Gay men like Paul and lesbians like activist and filmmaker Bev Ditsie were the first generation of openly gay people in Soweto, and were the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1976-generation.
Ditsie is a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand – the organisation that gave us our very first Gay and Lesbian Pride March in Johannesburg, 1990.
Led out of the museum, we are taken to the home of lesbian author (Black Bull, Ancestors and Me), and sangoma (traditional healer) Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde. She explains the relationship between her sexuality and her ancestors. According to a publication about sangomas that the Gay And Lesbian Archives contributed to:
“A person needs to receive a calling from their ancestors. Ancestors play a critical role in the life of a sangoma. The ancestors are the holy spirits of deceased family members, and provide the gift of healing and the ability to predict what will happen in the future.”
She explains that male and female sangomas are allowed to have ancestral wives to help them with their healing work. The ancestral wives are identified by the ancestors. Ancestral wives help the sangoma in their daily tasks and their interaction with the ancestors.
Although same-sex relationships within ancestral marriages are supposed to be taboo, (so many people still think that same sexuality is un-Africa), some modern sangomas are using these marriages to have secret same-sex relationships in rural areas. In urban areas, however, some are more public about these relationships.
Another stop along the route is the Soweto home of Busi Kheswa, a lesbian campaigner and oral historian. She shares her experiences, interspersed with information about the gay and lesbian history of the township.
Kheswa is a long-time Soweto resident, a facilitator of a support group for the gay and lesbian community at HIVSA (located in the Wits Chris Hani Baragwanath Peri-Natal HIV Research Unit), and an elder of the Hope and Unity Metropolitan Community Church – Africa’s first openly gay black church.
The tour finally ends and I feel as if my body has absorbed missing parts of my history as a lesbian.
As a white woman, lesbian and owner of a tour operator in Gauteng, with all my preconceived perceptions long gone, I now regularly take visitors into Soweto, loving the experience more every time I visit the now familiar township and its people and attractions.
I end this article with the words from the late great human rights and AIDS activist – an icon in gay and lesbian history and a well-loved Soweto resident – Simon Nkoli, after his release from jail in 1990:
“In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man, and I am oppressed because I am gay. So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions.”