by Karen Williams

The issue of gay rights in Africa has been gaining centre-stage, both on the continent and internationally. However, the longtime role and visibility of women and the urban poor in the fight for gay rights in South Africa has been wiped from official narratives, including the histories that are told within the country’s gay rights movement. Gone are the facts of working class mobilisation and popular struggle with women’s participation and leadership; in their place is the mythography of heroic, singular men challenging apartheid and legislative homophobia.

Early Pioneers: Gay rights activists Simon Nkoli and Bev Palesa Ditsie
Early Pioneers: Gay rights activists Simon Nkoli and Bev Palesa Ditsie

In South Africa, it is important to commemorate and document the struggle for equal rights that resulted in the country’s groundbreaking constitution giving legal protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It is even more important, given the backlash that this has engendered in the form of hate crimes and rape against township lesbians. Before South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, no country in the world had imagined that it was possible to give full human rights to gay people without the structure of society collapsing. This decision is directly responsible for the marriage equality movement which is currently occurring globally. However, South Africa’s guarantee of gay rights will likely be challenged in the future by the need to give asylum to African gays fleeing pogroms and persecution in their home countries, and the question remains whether President Jacob Zuma and ruling African National Congress (ANC) will attempt to dismantle the country’s gay rights provisions.

The constitution’s Equality Clause ensuring non-discrimination because of sexual orientation was not South African exceptionalism or simply the benevolence of the main liberation movement, the ANC: it was the result of consistent work by anti-apartheid gay activists, including black women. It was also the result of decades of political engagement with gay rights, starting with Nelson Mandela himself.

Political struggle, risk and visible gay identities most famously came together in 1962, when Mandela was on the run from police and his legend as the Black Pimpernel was cultivated. ANC history acknowledges that Mandela evaded capture for so long largely because he posed as the chauffeur of Cecil Williams, a gay white communist theatre director, thus enabling him to move around the country and mobilise the masses. The ANC always felt a debt to Williams, and could not divorce his political action from his personal identity.

Williams sheltering Mandela was one of the threads that started the conversation for the ANC on gay rights within the liberation movement. The conversation continued – often boisterously – in prison cells, picket lines and detention centres as the final push against apartheid started in the 1980s. And it was during these repressive years of the 1980s States of Emergencies and the height of the internal anti-apartheid struggle that a clear political culture based on equality was formed.

Furthermore, Mandela’s insistence on equality for all during his speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial (where he was sentenced to life imprisonment) gave democratic gay rights activists a political language as they toyi-toyied, picketed, worked and struggled in the dark days, adamant that lived equality also meant that gay rights were human rights.

Throughout South Africa’s modern history, there has always been the marked presence of gay people, particularly in black urban working class communities. In everyday life, black sexual minorities have always lived within their communities in South Africa because under apartheid it was almost impossible for black people (meaning all people who aren’t white) to legally be able to move away.

In my own family, my grandmother raised her pastor’s daughter (whose mother died), and the daughter eventually set up home with another woman from the church, with their three children. This was more than thirty years ago, and our families have always considered the women to be married.

Yet it was the final push against apartheid that provided the political conditions to enable the growth of the democratic gay rights movement in the country. During the 1980s, under the main umbrella anti-apartheid grouping, the United Democratic Front (UDF), gay rights activists became consciously political in a public and national sphere. Progressive lesbians and bisexual women (including black women) stood up where they were: in the UDF as well as in the smaller socialist and Africanist organisations. There were black lesbians in the armed resistance movements. National gay visibility had up to then been confined to white people who had a big problem with black people and who largely had no problem with apartheid. The democratic non-racial movement overturned that, bringing together black and white gay rights activists, and within that struggle, black gay people worked to ensure that racial and sexual equality didn’t have to be an either/or trade-off.

A gay wedding in South Africa
A gay wedding in South Africa

The povo (the poor, the proletariat) in the townships formed the rank-and-file of that struggle. What the prevailing narratives of South African gay rights often miss, is the role that township communities – particularly women – played in supporting the movement, particularly as gay rights activists were also prominent anti-apartheid fighters. It was our grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters who shielded activists, rooted for them and kept bodies and spirits together under the threats of torture, detention and murder.

At the early gay pride marches in Johannesburg, it was our township mothers and aunts who cooked the food, helped in the organisation and provided houses for us to sleep over when we came in from other cities.

Bev Palesa Ditsie was the first openly gay person to address the UN on gay rights in 1995
Bev Palesa Ditsie was the first openly gay person to address the UN on gay rights in 1995

But the visibility of women – and black women – was not only in supporting roles. Lesbians and bisexual women were visible in the leadership and the structures of the gay rights movement. Their work had global resonance, culminating in Bev Palesa Ditsie being the first “openly” gay person to address a United Nations conference in 1995. Ditsie had been instrumental in organising gay rights in Johannesburg and including it as part of a national liberation agenda.

At the same time, it wasn’t all roses for gay rights activists: white gay liberals were not welcoming of black gay people and the homophobia and threats to safety in our townships was an entrenched as they are now.

Furthermore, in my early life, it was clear that a number of prominent activists would have the courage to stand up to torture, detention and long-term imprisonment (and even the risk of death), but they would never have the courage to come out and identify as gay. I remember being fourteen at school and shielding and protecting a married teacher who was obviously gay. At seventeen, working in my first job at an anti-apartheid newspaper, brazen black activists in their thirties who had risked their lives to stand up to the security police and had been imprisoned and tortured, would hide behind me as an out gay person and leave teenage-me unprotected to fight on their behalf, expecting me to be their support system and agony aunt.

The erasure of women from South Africa’s gay history is also because gay spaces are not free from oppression, whether this is patriarchy, domestic violence or racism. Politically active lesbians and bisexual women are often suspicious of working with gay men on struggles, knowing that they are always short-changed in the men’s patriarchal practices, with women expected to support men but that support seldom being reciprocated.

Acknowledging the role of women and black women in South Africa’s gay equality movement is more than a gendered correction of history. Black women’s agency has often been presented as folksy and personally self-sacrificing. But if you look at female support from working class households, it points to a fundamental truth about who we are: not crusading heroes, but black women showing political independence by taking in their gay children and forging their own political and cultural practices in the face of colonial and political onslaught. It is not blind self-sacrifice; it is moral and political action.

For me there was also the joy and the fun of a teenage love affair and the calls to my communist girlfriend as she regularly got arrested in campus protests, trying to have a conversation while she was swearing at the police or her calling me from the police station, toyi-toying, singing and causing mayhem, while waiting for a lawyer to bail her and her comrades out.

It’s important to remember that before we were South Africa’s black diamonds, we were also the povo. And, as a new generation of young gay people in South Africa’s townships start their own struggle, the older generation need to remember the urban povo who made our lives possible: the mineworkers, black streetwalkers, hustlers and crooks who made space for us in their bars and clubs because we had nowhere else to go; the transvestite sisters turning tricks who put their arms around our shoulders; and our aunties, our mothers and our grandmothers who said that we were human. And not to forget the women who were righteous: Sheila and Julia, fierce, Jewish and running the gay rights stalls at early UDF rallies; Bev; Meganthrie; Tanya who told the socialists they needed to walk the talk; sister-soldier Funeka; Medi and Theresa who opened their home; Tracy who loved nothing more than causing a riot in a police van; and also that righteous 14-year old self who said I’m woman, I’m black, and I’m here.

(Edited versions of this piece has appeared in the Genderlinks Commentary Service and Pambazuka)

Photos: Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist who has documented black lesbian and gay life in the country. Her photographs are reproduced with her kind permission. Her work can be viewed at

Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

This piece was edited by Henna Butt

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