in SOUTH AFRICA, 17/03/2010
Interview of Phumi Mtetwa by Patricia Curzi on racism and discrimination
Multiple Identities and Multiple Discriminations
Phumi Mtetwa is a black, South African, activist, well aware of by the realities of apartheid in South Africa (SA).
She was active in the struggle in the late 80s and 90s and decided to focus her energies on linking LGBTI struggles with others of social and political justice. She was ILGA Co-Secretary General from 1999 to 2001. She moved to Ecuador, where she was active in social movements’ processes, including the World Social Forum, the LGBT South-South Dialogue and the Global Network of Social Movements, for seven years. She returned to South Africa in July 2007, where she assumed the Directorship of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. She is also involved in various social movement initiatives, such as the Amandla Collective [www.amandla.org.za] and other progressive activists’ initiatives in post-apartheid SA.
In only twenty years you experienced the fight against apartheid, the joy to get rid of that racist social system and the enthusiasm of living in a recently-born democracy as well as, maybe, the disappointment related to over-expectation after those difficult times. How is it to live through such a heavy history as a woman and as a lesbian?
Apartheid was a hard reality, a crime against humanity, where the exclusion and suffering of black people also saw many lives lost, destroyed and a legacy that is so present in today’s South Africa. Coming from struggling against racist oppression has allowed me to understand discrimination and exclusion based on multiple identities. In my later high school years, being part of a broader struggle as a lesbian was extremely challenging. Those experiences inform very much how today I continue to raise sexual diversity issues in broader struggles for justice and equality.
The African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela’s party, was considered as one of the most revolutionary movements in the world. However, lesbian and gay rights were not part of the programme at the beginning of the movement. What made the ANC movement change their attitude towards lesbian and gay rights? And how did lesbians and gays contribute to the fight against apartheid?
Undoubtedly, the active involvement of lesbians and gays within the anti-apartheid movement, especially the ANC, helped very much challenge the ANC internally on taking a stance on sexual orientation. There were a number of known lesbians and gays in the anti-apartheid struggle, but few of them found the courage to make visible the linkages between racial and sexual oppression. Hence, the ANC took a principled stance that no one could be excluded and discriminated against on the grounds that the apartheid regime oppressed people. Remember that in South Africa people were persecuted and imprisoned as well for being homosexuals.
You took part in various international meetings as a black, lesbian activist, including the Review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in 2000, and the Durban Conference Against Racism in 2001. Looking back, what do you think those two international mainstream events brought to the lesbian and the LGBTI movements?
There is no doubt that Beijing in 1995 and its review process in 2000 positioned much better than before the human rights of all women; and lesbian rights were so prominent, led by the newly elected President of South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and a broad base of feminist activists from across the globe. It is ironic how our government has turned against the principles of defending the rights of LGBTI people in today’s international spaces, notably the United Nations.
The Conference Against Racism means so much to me, especially in terms of what I learnt, the gaps in activism work, particularly our failure to make linkages on the multiple forms of discrimination and exclusion. One positive outcome achieved by LGBTI who participated in this process was to locate an international movement for freedom, equality and dignity of a significant number of people in society, integrating LGBTI people within that framework. We opened eyes, raised consciousness and allowed us to build alliances that we would have otherwise not forged, for example with indigenous peoples, especially of the Americas, Afro-descendants, Roma people, and so on. The challenges now are how we keep the momentum and strengthen a truly international movement across color, racial, sexual and class differences.
The South African constitution bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which makes it one of the most progressive in the world. At the same time, it has one of the highest percentages of rapes of women and lesbians in the world. How can this discrepancy be explained?
These are some of the indicators of a country going through an extreme social and economic crisis. In the past five years in particular, the poor and the working class are perpetually in a cycle of rot, marginalisation, thin social capital, vulnerability. Out of these conditions various ideologies get reproduced, and responses to the crisis also develop. Ideologies such as evangelical religion; retreat to tradition, ethnicity and tribalism; conservative forms of morality; etc., get multiple responses: solidarity groups, social capital, on the one side, and crime, domestic violence, poverty, disease and ignorance, in essence, on the other side.
Rape against lesbians in SA targets “butch,” masculine “performing” lesbians, those who transgress traditional gender roles. And this can be partly explained through what I said above. Our justice system has been unable to address crime issues properly, indicating that our transformation has not truly happened. The LGBTI community, together with women and human rights organizations, supported by a broad base of progressive social structures, are campaigning against this. Targets of the campaign include the justice system, but also communities where these rapes and murders occur; and they involve some consciousness raising activities earmarked to building communities that respect all diversities. A long and hard struggle.
You lived in Ecuador for a few years and have come back to South Africa recently. In which ways are lesbian, bisexual and trans women similar or different on the two continents you know best, Latin America and Africa?
There are similarities that can be attributed to a certain quality of life that does not exist in the South (Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean). The South is marked by high levels of poverty, unemployment and so on. Therefore, LGBTI people are a part of that reality; and often the struggles for equality include the improvement of social and economic status. Additionally, there are challenges that link the struggles with the role of religion, culture and tradition as a way to “exclude” LGBTI people.
The positive aspects include vibrant and creative movements that, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), have been able to locate issues of sexual diversity within the broader struggles of sovereignty, social justice, and alternatives to neo-liberal globalization sort. This capitalistic system that turns LGBTI people into commodities, for example, has found rejection from a broad collective of social movement activists. It is an innovation.
In Africa we face major challenges to what LAC has been achieving the past decade. We are building movements, and some of us are challenged by making these inter-linkages visible and clear even from within the LGBTI organizations. In SA, LGBTI people and organizations are not active in progressive social movements, except for the women’s and anti-violence movements. We are seeing some gains, but it will be a long struggle before a true social force of LGBTI organization is present
If you could go back in time, and based on your present experience and knowledge, what mistake would you not make again in your life as an activist?
The mistakes I have made in my life have all been worthy, as they taught me so many values and principles about activism. I do wish, however, that the drive, vision held and shared could move from a single “carrier” of the course to the diversification of actors. In that way, we could be able to forge a certain “wellbeing” of activists that can be sustained throughout our struggles, whilst also seeing positive results from the common goals set. We have a huge challenge in SA, such as the transmission of experiences to a younger generation, especially the one not involved in the anti-apartheid initiative; developing new and innovative skills and ideas for struggle; and building a true intergenerational movement, conscience of the multiple layers / realities to challenge.
Interview of Phumi Mtetwa by Patricia Curzi
From ILGA Publication “Lesbian Movements: Ruptures & Alliances”