Activist, Star Trek fanatic and future politician, Zak Mbhele represents the best of young LGBT South Africans. The former Chairperson of ACTIVATE – the LGBT student society at Wits University – he has also worked as a part-time archivist at GALA (Gay and Lesbian Archives) and was involved in setting up the first umbrella organisation for LGBT student societies in South Africa, Kaleidoscope.
He held a seat on the Management Committee of the JWG (Joint Working Group), the national network of gay and lesbian organisations, and has been Co-Chair of Joburg Pride since 2008, also serving as its spokesperson. That he manages to hold down a full time day job is somewhat impressive.
We get to know more about this 24 year old dynamo who plans on making a real difference in South Africa.
Describe yourself in three words…
Ambitious, spiritual, analytical.
When did you come out?
I came out when I was 18, in October 2003.
Who was the first person you told?
My mother. Although I always say that I didn’t come out the closet so much as I was yanked out. During a conversation she said that she knew I was gay and I confirmed it.
Do you have a special someone in your life at the moment?
Would you ever consider getting married?
It’s a possibility but I haven’t made up my mind either way. I’d be fine never to get married and if I do, the impetus for it will likely have to come from my partner. I’ve always had this picture in my mind that the way it would happen is that we’d be sitting on the couch watching TV and he’d turn to me and say, “Do you think we should get married?” to which I’d reply, “Um, ja, sure, why not?” Not very romantic, I know…
What’s the best thing about living in South Africa?
The diversity of people and communities. I have friends and acquaintances from all sorts of cultural, racial/ethnic and religious backgrounds and I absolutely relish it.
What’s your favourite local restaurant?
Europa in Rosebank Mall. They have a broad menu selection, great service and excellent chocolate Mozart cake.
Where would one generally find you on a Friday and Saturday night?
Usually Rosebank, Melville or Parkhurst having dinner and drinks with friends, often followed by a few hours of clubbing.
What albums are blaring through your speakers at the moment?
Right now I’m revisiting my Rent soundtrack – my close friends can testify to my obsession with it – and I’m still enjoying my latest CD purchase of Rihanna: The Remixes.
How do you get around town?
In a Citroen Berlingo – not by choice.
If your house caught on fire, what would you grab from the blaze?
My PC hard drive, journals and files in which I’ve got my plans for the future recorded.
If you inherited a large sum of cash, what would you spend it on?
It’s always been my plan to follow the 70/30 Rule – for which I have Suze Orman to thank: Donate 10% of it to various charitable or community causes, put another 10% in an investment portfolio and save another 10% in an interest-bearing account in case of a life emergency. With the remaining 70%, I’d bankroll various ideas and projects I have but don’t have the money or time to work on. In particular, I’d hire a PA to help me get administratively organised in my life!
“As a young person, I recognise Pride as one of the main ‘initiation’ events when you start coming out…”
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to either be an engineer, architect or fashion designer; or some combination of those.
What did you end up becoming?
My first and current job is working as a Programme Officer in a developmental grant-making NGO that funds community-based organisations and rights-based grassroots community projects.
Do you love your job?
Yes, I do. I have fantastic colleagues, it’s not a big staff complement so we’re like a family in the office, the work affords me the opportunity to travel to various parts of South Africa and I love knowing that my work contributes to development and community upliftment, especially for vulnerable and marginalised groups.
What was the last movie you saw on the big screen?
The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I highly recommend to all moviegoers. Just make sure you have your tissues with you!
If you could have dinner with five people, living or deceased, who would they be?
Donald Trump, Thabo Mbeki, Helen Zille, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama.
Do you have any hidden talents or special skills?
I’ve been complimented on my singing at karaoke evenings and I have a raw psychic ability for precognitive dreams.
Are you harbouring any celebrity crushes at the moment?
Oh, tons! Trevor Noah, Tom Welling, Viwe Soga, Zac Efron, Adam Brody, James Franco, Josh Hartnett, Dennis Tau… You may wanna sit down; this could take a while…
What made you decide to become such an active member in the LGBT community?
I was kind of forced into it by circumstances. When I was in second year at Wits, one of the religious student societies put up a series of homophobic posters on campus publicising a lunchtime open discussion about not wanting gay students to stay in the male residences. At the time, the LGBT student society, ACTIVATE, was dormant and a few friends and I decided to, um, “reactivate” it so that there could be an organised response to homophobia on campus.
Now that religious and social conservatives seem to be mobilising to have various pieces of legislation flowing from the Bill of Rights repealed, particularly the Civil Union Bill, I can see myself being involved in the efforts and campaigns to resist that reactionary backlash.
Who do you draw inspiration from?
For their roles in transforming and reorienting the DA into a formidable force on our domestic political landscape – Tony Leon, Ryan Coetzee and Helen Zille; for redefining and deconstructing longstanding worldviews and embodying the saying that “politics is the art of the possible” – Barack Obama; and for a business career that exemplifies innovation, an attitude of “Screw It, Let’s Do It” daring and unquenchable ambition – Richard Branson.
What are the biggest challenges facing the LGBT community in SA?
The first is the conservative backlash against the legal framework that protects LGBT freedom and equality. The second – though not unique to the LGBT community – is the systemic dysfunction in state service providers and institutions, especially the police and criminal justice system which do little to mitigate the impunity of hate crimes.
Thirdly, the challenge of poverty and lack of resources, while also a general one, touches strongly on LGBT people in township and rural communities because it exacerbates the vulnerability and marginalisation that already exists owing to homoprejudice and adds another layer of oppression. Given South Africa’s demographics and socio-economic profile, it is the last two that are the real challenges facing the majority of LGBT people.
Why do you think that Pride is important?
As a young person, I recognise Pride as one of the main ‘initiation’ events when you start coming out, much like buying your first gay magazine or your first time going to a gay club. Th