Phumi Mtetwa: On receiving the 2018 Simon Nkoli Feather Award


Phumi Mtetwa (Pic: Facebook)

Long-standing South African LGBTIQ campaigner Phumi Mtetwa was this week awarded the 2018 Simon Nkoli Feather Award

An activist since the age of 12, she was intimately involved in the anti-apartheid freedom struggle of the 80s and 90s, as well as LGBTIQ liberation.

Mtetwa worked with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), was International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Co-Secretary General from 1999 to 2001 and was director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project until 2011. She is currently involved in various progressive initiatives in South Africa.

Ahead of being honoured on Thursday, Mtetwa issued the following statement about her award and Simon Nkoli’s activism.

“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. All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice.” Simon Nkoli

When we use the quotable quotes of the late comrade Simon Nkoli, rarely do we elevate that his politics was emancipatory. He understood then, from growing up in a farm, joining anti-racism struggles during apartheid – what lay beneath tactics such as rent, school and shop boycotts.

These of course were the demands of quality education, accessible medical care and decent jobs for Black people. He understood that to be truly free as a Black gay person, all of these struggles were/are intrinsically linked. He embodies what is now often referred to as the intersection lens in struggle.

He has been to a very large extent a ‘gay icon’, whose legacy is unfortunately only elevated and celebrated by LGBTI African people. I say “only” because his ability to link LGBTI issues with other issues in his contribution to the liberation movement have largely been forgotten by his party, the ANC.

Too often, we lose sight of the diversity of LGBTI people, and are taken by the separatist politics that groups forge in search of an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. For decades there has been criticisism of identity politics as limiting, and in many ways, assuming homogeneity.

Many of us have rejected identity politics as it fails to address the forces of power that exclude, discriminate and oppresses us. We have understood that capitalism is the driving force of power. It nourishes itself, among other things, through lust of consumerism, creating products labelled as ‘pink’ to make LGBTI people believe they are included only to feed the making of profit.

Capitalist culture diminishes the value and importance of communities and collectives by elevating the individual at all cost. It undermines the struggles for full emancipation of the most oppressed by selling empowerment through material acquisition. And most sadly, it ensures that there is no space for dissenting voices to be heard. Capitalism does not build. It is made to destroy.

As we elevate Simon’s activism and relevance today, I only hope that we do so in an honest way.

As recipient of the Award I want to recognise the power that Thami and his Foundation have built over the past ten years, the doors that they can open and the oppressed and excluded LGBTI people who have responded to their invitations. It is this power that I am hoping can be used to also speak truth to what Simon Nkoli stood for: the FULL EMANCIPATION of African queer/LGBTI people, alongside all those residing in a country we are still struggling to claim.

Whilst controversy is part of politics, we cannot ignore the substance within it. I look forward to collaborating with Thami [Feathers co-founder Thami Kotlolo] and all who create spaces to ensure that they are truly reflective of the struggles being waged in South Africa today.

Thank you, to the thousands who continue to struggle side-by-side with me, and for the Feathers’ team recognising that I am nothing without my comrades who encourage me, daily, to keep rising!

Thank you!

Johannesburg, 15 November 2018

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