One in Nine, a relatively obscure group, has generated huge controversy through its protest action at Joburg Pride on October 6th. Sadly, its vital cause of defending queer women has been overshadowed by public mudslinging and heightened factionalism within the LGBT community.
One in Nine claim that they needed to ‘ambush’ the parade to make a statement about the event’s “depoliticisation” and racial exclusivity. The reality is that organisations such as One in Nine are in large part behind this state of affairs.
I was among a handful of people who moved to rescue Joburg Pride in 2006 from a scenario in which it was run by one man who had driven the event into the ground; owing considerable amounts of money to suppliers and charities. As someone who came out to the world at my first Joburg Pride in the early 90s I knew what a powerful experience it could be and how very needed it was – as a liberating platform for queer self-expression and as a political tool. With Pride on the verge of being cancelled, I called for a meeting of interested parties at Constitution Hill to help “save” the oldest LGBT event in Africa.
At that meeting an exciting mix of LGBT political activists and people with skills such as event organising and marketing came together to do just that. Over the course of weeks, months and years that followed, however, the activists began to fall away, one by one.
Having spent four years on the board (I resigned in 2010) I can attest to the lack of interest displayed by the LGBT activist community in taking part in Pride’s organising during that period. Despite repeated requests to the Joint Working Group – the now defunct network representing LGBT community groups in South Africa – only one, or at the most two, representatives ever volunteered to the board.
“This act of turning on one’s allies perhaps reflects One in Nine’s frustration at the complete failure of the activist community in making headway in the crisis facing LGBT women in South Africa…”
E-mails requesting participation were either ignored or we were told that people were too busy or organisations did not have resources. All of us, in fact, were too busy, but we still took the time to make meetings and participate. The result of this vacuum is that what should have been a balanced board consisting of activists with political savvy and focus and people with organisational skills who could put on the event became dominated by the business-minded members.
Yes, meetings usually took place in Bryanston; but we needed those people who had skills in organising an event of Pride’s scale to help us put the damn thing together. We as activists needed to defer our time (not necessarily our views) to these volunteers who took time out of their day to contribute their staff, resources and offices at no cost. Perhaps it was inconvenient for some activists and perhaps they were challenged by hard-headed corporate-minded people with a middle-class worldview. But all of us need to be able to function outside of our comfort zones to bring our community together. Middle class people are just as gay as any radical activist.
I would argue that the current Joburg Pride organisers are not ultimately responsible for the lack of political substance at the event. While their intention is to both celebrate our community and to highlight the challenges facing us, they are not professional activists. They run businesses during the day and work on Pride after hours. And, admittedly, most of them are white and most of them do not have strong personal ties to black lesbian women most affected by hate crimes.
However, the current members of the board have done exactly what they were expected and tasked to do, based on their skill set and experience: put on a financially sustainable, increasingly well-organised, well-promoted and well-oiled machine that can safely accommodate 20,000 people through the streets of Joburg. That’s why they were asked to be part of the board in the first place.
Has Pride lost its centre in terms of political sensitivity, awareness and strategy? I’d argue in many ways, yes. I think it has become an event that almost exists for the sake of existing. But I’d place most of the blame at the feet of the very same activists who are now slinging emotive and inflammatory accusations of racism and of being sidelined at the board. It is they who should have taken charge of Pride and provided leadership when it was needed. It is they who failed to show up when they were required to do so. Their moral outrage now smacks of hypocrisy and opportunism.
Pride was not, as claimed by one journalist, hijacked by the Pride board, it was instead abandoned and neglected by the LGBT activist community.
When One in Nine staged a similar ‘die in protest’ at Soweto Pride a week before the Joburg event it was a powerful and moving experience that highlighted the dire circumstances many of us face. On that occasion they worked with the organisers of Soweto Pride to integrate it into the parade to make it a success. Why did they not do the same with Joburg Pride? An opportunity to have similarly impacted on 20,000 people, instead of a few hundred, was lost. Why?