Over 20,000 people attended last Saturday’s Joburg Pride, the biggest-ever turnout for the longest-running and largest Pride event in Africa. Not all were there to ride floats, drink beer and dance to acts like Flash Republic, however. The parade was halted on Jan Smuts Avenue in Rosebank, when around 20 black lesbians and feminists from the One in Nine campaign staged a protest act – a “die-in” – on the road in front of Pride participants. The activists lay on the road, together with a number of mannequins, wearing purple t-shirts reading “Stop the war on women’s bodies”, and displaying banners which stated “Dying for justice” and “No cause for celebration”.
The One in Nine campaigners hoped to secure a minute of silence to commemorate those members of the South African queer community who have been raped or slain over the past few years because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. They passed out leaflets listing 25 names of such individuals, noting that there were “countless more, unnamed and unknown”. But the activists did not find a receptive audience in the Pride participants leading the parade. Video footage shows an aggressive altercation between the activists and those parading, with the activists being pushed, sworn at, threatened with being driven over, and being told to “go back to your lokshins (townships)”. Police eventually moved the activists away.
By all accounts it was a nasty scene, and the aftermath has been nasty too. One in Nine activists accused Joburg Pride organisers of running a depoliticised, elitist, commercialised event totally divorced from what the real function of Pride should be. Joburg Pride organisers have accused the activists of ambushing a well-run event, behaving deliberately provocatively in order to make a stir, and committing the cardinal sin of airing the gay community’s dirty laundry in full view of all the heterosexuals. But such a spat has been building for some time, and the fracas is simply showing up community divides which have been there all along.
Gay activist Emily Craven’s highly readable paper, “Racial identity and racism in the gay and lesbian community in post-Apartheid South Africa”, provides a useful context for Saturday’s events. Written in 2010, it anticipates many of the problems around Joburg Pride today. “While race is probably the most recognised and studied societal fault-line in post-Apartheid South Africa, it is clear that contestation around Johannesburg Pride is far more complex,” she writes. “Issues around race, gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and the multiple intersections between these identities are all key to understanding the contestations around Pride.”
Just because two people are gay, in a country as divided as South Africa, does not mean there will be any meaningful similarities between their lifestyles. The travails of a rich white gay man are unlikely to match the struggles faced by a black lesbian in an informal settlement. In South Africa, race and class are far more significant determiners of social standing than sexual orientation. To even speak of a gay “community” here, though it may be politically expedient to imply unity, is probably misleading. An event like Pride, which must ostensibly aim to represent all facets of alternative sexuality in South Africa, faces a hell of a job.
Gay pride events around the world normally have a dual focus: part party, part politics. One in Nine – a campaign group founded in 2006 during the Zuma rape trial, with its name derived from the estimate that only one out of every nine rape survivors report their attack to the police – says that Joburg Pride has now relinquished all pretence of a political function, being focused exclusively on a slick, money-making party spectacle. Craven’s paper (which draws heavily on Mark Gevisser’s research) reminds us that this stance is not unprecedented within the history of South African gay rights: the first major gay organisation, the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), launched in 1982, was apolitical. They were, in fact, expelled from the International Gay and Lesbian Association in 1987 for refusing to condemn Apartheid.
It was in reaction against GASA that the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) was started by activists including Simon Nkoli. An explicitly political group, GLOW held the first-ever Joburg Pride event in 1990. Some marched with paper bags over their faces to conceal their identity, scared of recriminations. They marched for gay rights, but they marched also to protest against the wider regime: “Dykes for democracy”, read one poster, and “Lesbians and gays against Apartheid”. Speaking at that event, Simon Nkoli said: “I am black and I am gay…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.”
One in Nine cites Nkoli’s words as evidence that Joburg Pride has its roots in a political struggle rather than a jol. This is historically undeniable, but there is also little doubt that the tenor and function of Joburg Pride has shifted over the intervening years since that initial march in 1990. Paul Stobbs, who ran Pride in the mid ‘90s, was quoted in Anthony Manion and Shaun de Waal’s book Pride: Protest and Celebration as saying: "The march at the time was too political and this was preventing people from coming. White gay boys want to have fun; they want to drink".
A revealing change in Pride-related nomenclature also occurred. By the late ‘90s, what was originally the “Lesbian and Gay Pride March” had become the “Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade”, Craven notes, with listing prominence given to gays rather than lesbians, and the distinctly political-sounding “march” replaced with the much more fun-loving “parade”.
But it wasn’t popular. By 2001, the event was in crisis, massively in debt and with dwindling attendance. In that year, the decision was taken to move Pride from the inner city to Zoo Lake in Rosebank. Bar two years, Pride has been held at Zoo Lake ever since. Zoo Lake has itself no particular racial baggage, since it was a non-racial space in Apartheid, and it has a gay connection as a once-popular cruising zone, but its location in the suburb of Rosebank is taken as evidence by groups like One in Nine that Pride is now primarily intended for rich white people.
The question of where Pride should be held is inextricably linked to how the function of Pride is perceived. “The arguments around the push for a change of venue have always gone hand in hand with the debates around whether Pride is supposed to be a political march or a celebratory parade,” writes Craven; “the choice to walk in areas that are generally gay-friendly and non-threatening contrasts with the notion of Pride as an attempt to claim contested space”.
In Rosebank, the argument goes, marchers are preaching to the converted – it’s a liberal area with lots of gay residents. If Pride is to fulfil another purpose (that of visibility), it should take place somewhere where inhabitants are less accustomed to, or tolerant of, queers. But then, of course, there is the question of safety to consider: in 2004, when Pride briefly moved back to the inner city, a female marcher was seriously injured by a bottle hurled from above, and was lucky to escape with her life.
There are today three separate Pride marches which take place annually in Johannesburg: Joburg Pride in Rosebank, Soweto Pride, and Ekhurelheni Pride in Kwa Thema. Of the three, Joburg Pride is the best attended by an order of magnitude – it is thriving, in fact. Organiser Tanya Harford (a former international women’s tennis player) told the Daily Maverick that she “rejects with contempt” the idea that Joburg Pride is a “white” event. “You can see from the footage that the racial mix is representative of the demographic of the country,” she said.
One in Nine activist Kwezilomso Mbandazayo directed the Daily Maverick’s attention to the fact that the Joburg Pride board (4 women and 3 men) is exclusively white. Harford said, however, that board involvement is voluntary and unpaid, and that they have been trying for some time to involve other people, but up till now “not one NGO or individual has said that they would like to contribute to the board”.
When asked about this, Mbandazayo sighed and said: “Maybe they need to ask what it is about that board that makes darkies not want to join.”
The major problem comes down to the basic issue of what function Joburg Pride is supposed to perform. For Harford, it seems that the challenge of putting on an event which is attractive to the whole queer community is best solved by leaving politics out of it altogether. “None of [the board members] are activists,” she says. “Our job is not to be political. We just put on an event which is a platform, so you can march with placards saying whatever you want. But join in, don’t disrupt it.”
Harford says that they fully support One in Nine’s outrage at the murder of queer South Africans, and that if the activists had communicated their intentions in advance, a platform would have been provided for them to issue a more powerful message. “Instead, it’s turned into all this mudslinging in the media and a social media storm which diminishes the credibility of the LGBTI community and leaves us all looking stupid,” she said.
Mbandazayo questions whether a group of gay white men staging some sort of flash-mob would have received the same aggressive response at Pride as her group of black lesbian protesters. She said that part of the reason why the organisation did not communicate with Pride prior to their protest was because their protest was also against the Pride event itself, in its current commercialised format. One in Nine also rejected the idea that they “ambushed” or “hijacked” the event, because that presupposes that Pride belongs to a certain set of people rather than being a space for the entire queer community.
“Pride needs to speak directly to the core issues of South African gay people, and their experiences of violence,” Mbandazayo said. “We are not saying that there should be no celebration at all, but we need to put the revolution back into Pride.”
One in Nine now says it is interested in hosting a big public meeting, in order to thrash out these challenges more fully. We’ll be watching closely: while this may seem a gay-specific issue, in many ways the contestation around Pride is a microcosmic representation of the wider South African problem. It’s a crucible which throws together questions of privilege, race, gender, class, money and violence. If the LGBTI community can find a workable solution, they should share it.