Anzio Jacobs | No cause for celebration, we are not all free

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The SAHRC refused to meet with LGBTQIA+ protestors in Johannesburg on Monday (Pic: Genevieve Jeanne Louw / GALA archival collection)

Over the last few weeks in South Africa, it has become evident that the onslaught of attacks on LGBTQIA+ people across the country cannot go unanswered. It is critical to get a response from President Ramaphosa and the government as the scourge of hate crimes is not unrelated to the mounting cases of Gender-Based Violence.

We cannot continue as usual. LGBTQIA+ people are increasingly at risk, and it is time to take action. This article is undoubtedly going to be unpopular. However, I hope that it will serve as a way to engage with those who seldom have an opportunity to voice their concerns.

How far have we really come as a sector since 2012 when “No Cause for Celebration” brought Joburg Pride to a grinding halt?

This article is written from a place of love for fellow activists and organisers who cannot be bystanders as our people are continuously hurt and killed. It is written so that we can begin to think through some of the implications of solidarity in moments of social and political turmoil and about how we can better organise in moments of crisis.

On Monday, on the 26th of April 2021, I was fortunate enough to join a group of protesters in the Johannesburg CBD. Their protest was community-driven and led; it was organic, messy, authentic, cautionary, and the most innovative community-based organising I have seen for a while. Despite some in attendance travelling from the Vaal in a show of solidarity, we as the LGBTQIA+ community did not show up.

It was heart-wrenching to hear the stories of community-based activists paying from their pockets, despite being jobless, to promote community support for victims of these hate crimes and their families. I witnessed an older woman explaining that she often gives her last to ensure a better future for those around her. She shared how the community rallies around young black LGBTQ persons in townships, where funding is a myth. I heard how CBOs apply and apply and yet never get the kind of financial support they need.

And yet these are the people from whom our freedoms stem. The community-based organisations that bring to the attention of the world the plight of black queer bodies in underserved townships and rural areas: spaces unfit for humans that we as a country continue to ignore and yet benefit from when laws are passed to protect those most vulnerable. And we do not show up when it matters most.

We need to talk.

The protest called for action from the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) which refused to acknowledge the presence of protestors who sought the protections Chapter 9 institutions like the SAHRC are meant to provide. As the 200-person-strong protest arrived at the doors of the JD Building in Braamfontein, where the group was meant to meet with SAHRC officials, the doors were shut. The organisers were informed that the officials would not meet them and that no one would speak on behalf of the entity.

And as our people went unheard again, instead of backing down and giving up, the protest turned pavement meeting (umRhabulo) where people shared their experiences, concerns and suggestions. It was a community-led space where people could say what was on their minds in their mother tongues and it was beautiful.

Iphupho l’ka Biko performed on the street, performing songs of solidarity and protest in support of the protesters. It was a beautiful moment that did the work of restoration and reinvigoration necessary after being shut out of a space that was meant to serve us.

The solidarity efforts around the country by individuals, organisations and interested entities are commendable, but are the implications of the protests being considered in all instances? Are we mindful of who gets the information related to organising and who doesn’t? Who is invited and who isn’t? Are we conscious of who is coming to protests, how they come and why? Are we deliberate in our choices to attend certain events while neglecting others? And if we are, where does it leave us in relation to one another; can we continue to operate as if we have homogenous experiences?

For some, in the current socio-political climate, life has continued largely uninterrupted, but how are we ensuring the safety of individuals whose only responses to the hate crimes which have robbed them of their freedoms are picketing and marches? Maybe our silence makes us complicit in the perpetual loss of lives in communities on the margins of the South African cities in which some of us thrive. Maybe we need to understand that the outbreaks of violence that are meted out on our communities find root in places like the taxi ranks we fear going to and the townships we avoid at all costs.

We need to join hands and march.

Our Prides, our conferences and our advocacy in perfectly curated spaces are on the backs of black queers whose names we do not know until they are hashtags. We need to reflect. We as LGBTQIA+ communities – whether in suburbia or bustling cityscapes – cannot ignore that our comforts are insensitive to the lived realities of those like us who spend their last monies on court cases. Cases where perpetrators of hate crimes are getting bail because there is insufficient community mobilisation when it matters. It is time to stop being reactive. At this rate, it could be any one of us next.

We need to bring these issues to the attention of local and national government. During the community gathering in the middle of Braamfontein on a street corner, one protester shared that they were tired of only being called when busses need to be filled and reports need to be written.

Is it sensible for us to make use of structures that historically have not served our communities? Or do we need to collectively think of new ways to engage which narrow the gaps in the hierarchies we have created? Do we rely on the same police who brutalise us for our protection when we organise? Are the task teams we are part of as a sector part of the problem or the solution? When we organise in Johannesburg and Cape Town to indicate our solidarity, are we conscious about efforts in areas that are not significant metropoles where violence often goes unchecked? When we celebrate Prides, is there really cause for celebration?

We need to acknowledge that our organising is not uniform. When we celebrate days like Freedom Day, are we mindful of those countless people who will die for the freedoms we enjoy without a second thought? How are we as LGBTQIA+ communities underpinning those doing work in support of the families of Pastor, Bongani, Lulu, Nathaniel, Sphamandla, Nonhlanhla, Lonwabo and countless others we claim to be advocating for. Those who continue to be marginalised within the margins of our society – whose lives are forgotten quickly after their hashtags disappear from social media – are not free.

Our contributions fall short when they are only through hashtags.

We need to acknowledge that we are not free until everyone can enjoy freedom. With the many platitudes at play and during a pandemic, let us reflect on whose freedom we celebrate. Let us be more conscious of court dates where survivors of hate and those whose lives were lost ought to find justice, and show up. Let us show solidarity at Prides and in moments of grief. Let us weep in Sandton as we do in KwaThema and Daveyton – remembering always that while South Africa has fought for freedom, not all are free.

On Monday, community activists from around Gauteng began the work of calling us out and in. We have a unique opportunity to create the space we all so desperately need. If we leverage our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses we can put an end to hate. Let us be mindful of the activities to come in the next few days as we take to the streets in protest under different banners. Let us call on our places of worship and work to note this dark time in South African history. Let us call on those in our spaces to speak up.

The killing of LGBTQIA+ people requires us to acknowledge that individuals and organisations alike need to unite for our collective freedom so those who do not enjoy the privilege of access, as many of us do, may also find a seat at the table. We can create spaces for organising during this time of crisis and make use of this historical moment in favour of solidarity as it once was.

We need each other.

Anzio Jacobs is the executive director of Scope Non-Profit and a community activist.

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