She’s a woman. She’s black. She’s a lesbian. She’s dead. Her legs stick out under an empty sandbag, which has been used to cover part of her body. She’s lying on a bed of yellow and brown leaves. Her face is not included in the frame. Her trousers are left at her feet, still wrapped around her ankles. The man who brutally raped and later killed her did not take the effort to undress her properly.
Five gruelling pictures, taken from various angles, provide the viewer with an almost polished – yet none the less unsettling – overview of the victim’s crime scene. If it wasn’t for Zanele Muholi, the victim might have ended up being just another nameless and faceless statistic of victims of hate crimes in South Africa. Muholi was present to photograph the crime scene though, and so the victim – still nameless and faceless but no longer voiceless – features post-mortem in the exhibition ‘Mo(u)rning’, on show until 1 September in Stevenson Gallery, Woodstock, Cape Town.
Zanele Muholi is a photographer and an activist. A black lesbian herself, she approaches and documents South Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community from a trusted and respected insider’s perspective.
Mo(u)rning is an exhibition of a photographer who is ‘hurting inside’. Zanele Muholi is a fighter and fiercely believes in her cause. Yet, she faces prejudice and downright hostility in a country that at times seems to be at war with itself. In August 2009, the then Minister for Arts & Culture, Lulu Xingwana, stormed out of an exhibition in Johannesburg, funded by her department. The exhibition coincided with Women’s Day and aimed to give a platform to young black female artists. After seeing the work of Muholi, the minister left – without delivering her speech – calling the works ‘immoral’. The black and white photographs of Muholi, depicting black lesbian couples in intimate embraces, celebrate love between two people – of the same sex – in a delicate and respectful way. The minister could not approve. “My mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because Muholi’s works expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building”, she said afterwards.
In 1996, two years after the formal end of apartheid, South Africa’s new constitution became the first in the world to include provisions of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2004 the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that same-sex couples must be included in the common law definition of marriage and in 2006 the office of the president signed into law the Civil Union Act, which allows people of the same sex to get married or registered as a common law couple. Legally speaking, lesbians, gays and, to a more limited extent, transgender people have achieved equality in South Africa. Over the past decade, however, activists have recorded dozens of incidents of sexual and physical violence against the LGBTI population.
The wave of hate crimes against the LGBTI community in general and against black lesbians especially, is part of an epidemic of violence against women and children sweeping South Africa. The country has amongst the highest rates of violence of all kinds in the world. Certain statistics suggest a woman is raped every 26 seconds – this is the highest in the world for a country that is not at war or embroiled in civil conflict.
South African police do not disaggregate records of sexual violence by motive or by survivors’ sexual orientation or gender expression and identity. As a result it is difficult to estimate how many transgender men, gay man and lesbians are raped in South Africa every year. ActionAid’s 2009 report “Hate crimes: The Rise of ‘Corrective Rape’ in South Africa” mentions 31 recorded murders of lesbian women since 1998. The number is estimated to be significantly higher though. In a poll of survivors of homophobic hate crimes in the Western Cape province, 66% of women said they did not report their attack because they would not be taken seriously.
Of those crimes that are reported, only 1 in 5 ends up in court, with only 4% of these resulting in a conviction. To date there has been just one conviction – in the case of Zoliswa Nkonyana who was beaten and killed by a gang of about twenty men in February 2006. After several postponements, her case was finally recognized as motivated by prejudice – a “hate” crime. Nine men were charged and a verdict of guilty was handed against four of them in October 2011.
‘Corrective rape’, a phenomenon in which men rape women they presume or know to be lesbians in order to ‘convert’ them to heterosexuality is fast becoming the most widespread hate crime against lesbian women in townships across South Africa. Especially ‘butch’ lesbians (lesbians that look and dress in a masculine way) are being targeted. Being black and lesbian is a highly dangerous combination in South Africa – especially if one lives in one of the country’s townships or rural areas. Those who are able to afford a middle-class lifestyle may not experience the same degree of prejudice and discrimination, but black lesbians and transgender men living in townships, rural areas and informal settlements are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of South Africa’s LGBTI population. Young black lesbians suffer from triple-stigmatisation, where they are prejudiced against for being black, for being women, and for being gay.
Starting point for dialogue
Muholi is the first artist in South Africa to have taken up the cause of the country’s black lesbians and other sexual minorities. Over the years, she has documented their lives – and deaths. In addition to her portrait series ‘Being’ and ‘Faces and Phases’ she has documented a large number of crime scenes and funerals of black South African lesbians, who were raped and murdered.
Then, on April 20 2012, Muholi became the target of an unspeakable crime herself. Someone broke into her apartment in Cape Town and stole virtually all her work of the past five years – a laptop and 20 hard drives and backup systems on which she stored countless images and films. Nothing else was taken from the apartment. Among the stolen material was the ‘Queercide’ project, created by Muholi to denounce and record hate crimes and atrocities committed against South African LGBTI people. Whoever got away with the boot was clearly after destroying Muholi’s visual testimony of crimes perpetrated against a section of the population that is being targeted because of their sexual orientation and preferences.
Mo(u)rning is Muholi’s comeback after the robbery. It’s her proof to the world she is still standing. “My photographs are the starting points for dialogue”, says Muholi, who is clearly not lettng herself being silenced by the disappearance of years of hard work.
Notwithstanding the photographs of crime scenes, statements of lesbian ‘corrective rape’ victims scribbled on the wall and a mourning room (where the documentary of hate crime victim Noxolo Nogwaza’s funeral can be watched), the exhibition is not all about death, hate and loss though. For Muholi Mo(u)rning evokes death, but also suggests the cycle of life as morning follows night. The ‘Being’ project brings a series of beautiful black and white photographs of lesbian couples and the portraits of lesbians, part of ‘Faces and Phases’ show people with enough courage and determination to express themselves the way they are, in a country that is showing itself to be increasingly intolerant of (sexual) differences and where homosexuality is dismissed as an inappropriate black South African lifestyle.
Petra and Praline
The highlight of the exhibition is the multiple award winning documentary ‘Difficult Love’. Directed by Muholi and Peter Goldsmid, it provides an endearing look into the lives and struggles of lesbians in South Africa. The documentary features Muholi and her (white) partner, giving the viewer an intimate look into their lives (past and present). It also features some experts on the theme of hate crimes, as well as victims. Millicent Gaika is one of those victims. With a blue and swollen eye and clearly in great pain and distress, she relates how she was held from 11pm until 4 am by a man from her neighbourhood who ‘did with her as he pleased’.
The documentary shows Muholi as she visits a township and speaks to the people. “This is un-African. This whole thing is for whites. I would never allow my child to take these pictures”, says one of the township women. “We are like this. We love ourselves. Our families love us. So why must we suffer all these unnecessary things? Why, why, why? Why lesbians all the time?” exclaims an afflicted young lesbian woman a few minutes later.
Wendy Isaacs, a human rights lawyer, gives her view on why lesbians are being targeted: “It’s got to do with masculinity and the way in which these women are challenging patriarchy and breaking through male privileges. Men don’t want anyone to be a man except for themselves. Besides, there is the irrational reasoning that lesbian women are after these men’s girlfriends. The perception is that if they just had sex with a man they would be ‘cured’.”
The most striking and heartbreaking item of the movie shows young Praline – a coloured girl with the characteristical gap between her two front teeth – and Petra, a mature woman, who dwell under a bridge in Mowbray. They live amongst the rats (their ‘protectors’ and ‘family’) and have collected a fake cell phone, a framed picture of Obama and a computer keyboard, with which they try to make their shelter look like a home. Expelled from the homeless people’s shelter for being lesbian, they live off the street and protect themselves from prejudice and attacks by passing for ‘mother and daughter’.
Mkhululi Mabija, who describes himself as a ‘fluid’ man when it comes to his sexual orientation, sits next to me as I watch the documentary. He grins, chuckles and shakes his head in disapproval at exactly the same times I do. Once the documentary is finished, I speak to him. He agrees with Isaacs. Hate crimes are on the rise because lesbians are a threat towards the patriarchal view men hold of society and women’s place in it. He explains: “South Africa has always been a polygamous society but all of a sudden women are going for women. Homosexuality is not tolerated in black communities but when our men were working in the mines in Johannesburg, homosexuality did exist. But now, lesbians are coming out and express their sexuality in the open, it is no longer as secret as it used to be in the gold mines”. For Mabija, the hate crimes are a sign of the intolerance and desperate hate, present in South Africa. “There is a lack of tolerance in the South African culture”, he says, “and this makes it an extremely brave act to speak out, like Muholi does.”
“We are suffering from the same violence that we felt under apartheid”, says Mabija. “The xenophobia, the violence against lesbians, nothing of this is really new. It just used to be suppressed in the past and now it is erupting”. Mabija is not totally pessimistic though. “The minute someone realises the love between two people is real, they understand it better”, he believes.