Activist and communication guru Tendai Thondhlana has dedicated over a decade to advancing LGBTIQ+ equality in Africa. With a background as the founding communications officer for African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) and later leading media and communications at The Other Foundation, Thondhlana has been instrumental in pioneering significant initiatives.
These include organising Africa’s first official MSM pre-conference event in 2011 and launching Plus, the continent’s inaugural LGBTIQ+ business network, in 2017. Notably, he also played a crucial role in building Africa’s largest online community for sexual minorities and allies on Facebook for The Other Foundation.
In an exclusive interview with MambaOnline, Tendai opens up about his personal journey, his perspective on LGBTIQ+ activism in Africa, and his ambitious plans for the future. Find out how he’s breaking barriers and empowering African civil society for sustainable change.
Tell us about your most significant coming out experience.
I used to think that my first coming out was my most significant one, but after many years of coming out repeatedly to different people, I now realise they are all equally important. Each new coming out is significant because it’s revisiting a previously life-defining moment. Coming out the first time was an enormous decision, yet now I say it as easily as telling the time. So, each new coming out is a revisit of that moment, and I look back at how far I’ve come since that time. I am constantly learning how coming out (or not) has and continues to shape my experiences in a certain way. What I know for sure is that I am happier for all the times I did choose to come out.
It seems that queer people never stop coming out throughout their lifetime.
Straight individuals aren’t typically expected to “come out” because their sexual orientation is considered the default. For us in the LGBTIQ+ community, coming out involves disclosing to new people in various contexts throughout life and navigating different levels of acceptance and support.
“Coming out can be a powerful tool for promoting acceptance and raising awareness of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.”
Do you have a supportive family when it comes to your queer identity?
Some unlearning and learning had to be done on both sides, but I am pleased to say I have an incredibly supportive family now and am grateful for that. I am also profoundly thankful for the support from my family of choice – my fantastic close friends.
Coming out has been labelled as a Western construct by some. How do you feel about this?
Coming out is not about adopting a Western cultural practice. It’s a response to the societal and cultural expectations that individuals face in their specific circumstances and the need to establish their identity and gain recognition and support from others. Coming out can be a powerful tool for promoting acceptance and raising awareness of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. By sharing their personal stories and experiences, LGBTIQ+ individuals can challenge negative stereotypes and encourage greater understanding and acceptance. However, it’s important to acknowledge that coming out may not be a viable or safe option for some LGBTIQ+ individuals, especially in environments where stigma and discrimination are prevalent. In these situations, alternative modes of activism and advocacy, such as anonymous storytelling or behind-the-scenes support for the community, may be more appropriate.
As a Zimbabwean, do you feel that matters have improved in your home country for the LGBTIQ+ community?
There have been some positive developments for LGBTIQ+ rights in Zimbabwe. Significantly in 2018, before the elections, Zimbabwe’s ruling political party, Zanu PF, gave GALZ, the biggest and oldest LGBTIQ+ group in the country, an opportunity to share its concerns and demands on behalf of LGBTIQ+ communities. This official, collaborative engagement between the state and an LGBTIQ+ group has made it easier for LGBTIQ+ organisations to operate more openly in the country and to engage the government more directly. However, LGBTIQ+ people in Zimbabwe still face significant challenges. Homosexuality remains illegal, and discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ+ individuals continue to be widespread.
What are your thoughts on recent legal advances in Namibia and Botswana?
One thing that the LGBTIQ+ sector is getting right is strategic litigation. In both countries, advocates employed strategic litigation to contest laws, resulting in landmark legal decisions. This approach not only produced tangible legal successes but also aided in spreading awareness of LGBTIQ+ issues and generating more public backing for LGBTIQ+ rights.
Do you think that South Africa has played a sufficient role in promoting queer equality in the region?
While South Africa has a responsibility to promote human rights and equality within its region, it’s crucial to approach this issue with sensitivity and respect. Working collaboratively with local organisations and activists is essential to promoting change from within. Ultimately, the responsibility for promoting and defending human rights lies with queer communities in each country, as they are the ones most affected and best placed to drive change. When communities lead engagement on their social issues, they can identify and prioritise their needs, develop solutions that work for them, and implement them in culturally appropriate, sustainable, and effective ways.
One of the challenges of the LGBTIQ+ sector is that funders, who are usually international, often dictate the priorities.
Funding is essential for the sustainability and growth of organisations but it can create a power dynamic where funding sources hold considerable influence over the work being done. This influence can impact the priorities of organisations and the direction of their work, potentially causing them to shift away from their original goals and objectives. This can lead to a lack of progress on critical issues and frustration among the community, potentially harming the organisations’ relationships with their constituents. When international funders set priorities, they must be better informed about the local context, needs, and priorities.
The mainstream media in many African countries has typically been very problematic when it comes to reporting on LGBTIQ+ issues.
Unfortunately, politicians and religious leaders have used the media to spread negative stereotypes and promote discriminatory laws and policies against the LGBTQ+ community. But there have been some positive developments in recent years. Some African media outlets are taking a more balanced and nuanced approach to reporting on LGBTIQ+ issues. However, we must recognise that progress has been slow and uneven. We need more education and awareness-raising about the experiences and needs of LGBTIQ+ individuals, as well as greater protections and support for journalists and media outlets reporting on these issues.
“Social media has played a pivotal role in empowering the LGBTIQ+ community in Africa”
LGBTIQ+ media is either non-existent or underfunded in Africa. Why is it important to maintain what we do have and grow independent LGBTIQ+ media?
It’s essential. Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets in many African countries often overlook or misrepresent the experiences and needs of LGBTIQ+ individuals, further perpetuating stigma and discrimination. We can bridge this gap and ensure that LGBTIQ+ individuals have access to accurate and positive representation in the media by supporting independent LGBTIQ+ media. Doing so can create a more inclusive and diverse media landscape. Independent LGBTIQ+ media can also play a vital role in advocacy and community building. Unfortunately, the lack of funding and support for independent LGBTIQ+ media in many African countries poses a significant challenge. This highlights the need for greater investment and support from governments, donors, and advertisers to ensure these crucial voices are not silenced or marginalised.
What has been the impact of social media on LGBTIQ+ organising, visibility and social attitudes towards sexual minorities in Africa?
It has created a platform for LGBTIQ+ individuals and organisations to connect, share resources, and collaborate across vast distances. People can voice their concerns and reach a wider audience. It has provided a space for queer people to express themselves freely and share their stories, raising awareness of their challenges and promoting greater understanding and empathy. However, it has also had drawbacks. Some individuals have used social media to propagate hate speech and spread misinformation about LGBTIQ+ people, which has fuelled intolerance and hostility towards them. Despite these challenges, it’s clear that social media has played a pivotal role in empowering the LGBTIQ+ community in Africa.
After more than a decade in the LGBTIQ+ sector, where would you like to see yourself in the next few years?
One of the biggest challenges I noticed in the sector was the financial dependence on donors for survival. That’s why I decided to make creating sustainable, scalable ways to fund non-profit organisations my next adventure. I envision a sustainably funded non-profit sector in Africa that is diverse and vibrant, with organisations that can operate freely and independently. A sustainable African civil society can better promote democracy, human rights, and inclusive development. I see African philanthropy and big business coming together and playing a crucial role in solving the sustainability question for African civil society. I have also begun an independent communications consultancy work and will run the first of a series of communications capacity-building workshops for African non-profits this year (check out kwametendai.com).
With Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act and growing intolerance in particularly other East African countries, are you hopeful about the future of LGBTIQ+ rights on the continent?
I am genuinely optimistic about the future of LGBTIQ+ rights on the continent. I see these regressive measures are a reaction to the remarkable progress made by coordinated movements working to change societal attitudes and advance policy reforms that benefit queer African individuals. It is important to note that these new laws do not represent the viewpoints of all Ugandans or Africans. Queer communities remain resilient in the face of adversity. Activists, organisations, and allies are continuously striving to promote equality, challenge discriminatory legislation, and advocate for the rights and well-being of LGBTIQ+ individuals. Their unwavering efforts inspire hope.