By T.J. Tallie and Maria Hengeveld*
This week BBC News reported on the rise in Cape Town’s status as a premiere international gay tourist destination. The article itself went on to report at length from gay South African hoteliers and organizers, many of whom lavished praise on the progressivism enshrined in the country’s constitution, and the comparative sense of freedom that South Africa in general (and Cape Town in particular) provided for LGBT-identified people. While it is undeniable that South Africa can boast one of the most inclusive constitutions in the world, particularly in regard to protecting the rights of those with different sexual orientations, the BBC article and much of the rhetoric surrounding ‘Cape Town as gay paradise’ obscures far more complex realities.
To begin with, the BBC begins with an utterly terrible opening line: “There is arguably no worse place in the world to be gay than Africa.” Oh God. First, the article begins with a depiction of Africa as monolithic and homophobic—only to then present South Africa as the great hope for gays and lesbians in the homogenously-rendered continent. This is both problematic and somewhat irresponsible. Taken as a large bloc, yes, there is certainly a troubling history of institutional homophobia throughout much of the continent, but to posit that Africa (as a magical unit) is the singularly worst place to be gay is dangerously totalizing. Such a linguistic move obscures realities throughout much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe for men and women that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It also conveniently forgets new developments, like Malawian President Joyce Banda’s new announcement to work to decriminalize homosexuality. Finally, the opening statement situates Africa as uniquely homophobic and particularly awful—thereby falling neatly into contemporary Western discourse on the continent.
The BBC article continues by quoting International Lesbian and Gay Tourism Association (ILGTA) spokesman Eugene Brockman as saying, “We are also attracting gays from all over Africa itself and for those forced to stay in the closet in their home countries, South Africa is liberating.” While it may appear to be quite encouraging, the pronouncement is not without problems. Such a statement obscures as much as it illuminates about contemporary LGBT politics and intersectional realities within Southern Africa. Indeed, this assertion can be construed as a form of ‘homonationalism,’ a term coined by theorist Jasbir Puar. For Puar, homonationalism occurs when a confluence of factors allow LGBT-identified men and women to invest in traditionally heteronormative hierarchical structures of race, class, and gender in order to pursue larger aims of nation-state. In particular, Puar works within an American context, referring to the potential inclusion of ‘proper homosexual’ subjects (read as white, male, and affluent) through same-sex marriage and military service in order to advance national interests both domestically and abroad (in particular against Latin American immigration and those people deemed suspect in the War on Terror). The project is likewise possible in South Africa; in pursuit of the ‘pink rand’ leveraged by affluent and internationally-inclined LGBT visitors, businessmen, politicians, and marketers seek to represent the country as a progressive paradise where men and women historically marginalized by their sexual orientation can partake in social and recreational activities within the Rainbow Nation.
The problem is that, despite Brockman (and the BBC)’s assertions of a ‘liberating South Africa,’ such opportunities are certainly not equally available to men and women within the country. Junior, a 23 year old gay-identified immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo living Cape Town, offers a different take on the perceived freedoms of the ‘new’ South Africa. Nearly two years ago, he left his hometown of Kinshasa, which he described as his deeply homophobic, for the ostensibly tolerant and globally acclaimed gay friendly Cape Town.
The choice was anything but easy. Not only did it force him to leave his friends and family behind, he also had to sacrifice his law degree. The final push to leave came when his mother announced that she would personally guarantee a violent fate for him if he admitted his attraction to men. “Like most people in the DRC, my mother believes homosexuality simply does not exist in our country,” Junior said.
After enduring the months-long saga of registering as a sexual refugee, he started his search for a job. He kept his expectations modest and decided to pursue a job in hospitality. “They continuously promised they would call me, both the gay and ordinary restaurants, but they never did. I remember feeling quite optimistic about a restaurant that is known for its feminine gay waiters, until they told me they only hire white guys.” A few weeks, heavily dwindled savings and soaring levels of desperation later, Junior got in touch with other gay men from the DRC.
“They told me that being black, gay and foreign in Cape Town means exclusion from the regular job market. According to them, the only way to earn some money is by performing sex work outside the gay clubs.” Instead, Junior visited an NGO that specifically supports sexual minorities. “Half an hour later I walked out with a food parcel of which the expiry date told me it had gone off months ago. I was homeless at this point, but they could or would not assist me.”
Things appeared to look up when an NGO referred him to a gay-friendly shelter in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township. Yet Junior’s nationality, like his race had previously, singled him out from the inclusion promised in the city. “They started to harass me for my Congolese nationality,” he recalled. “The xenophobia was palpable. When my belongings were stolen, I immediately left.” A second gay-friendly shelter proved no better, and eventually Junior left what he felt was described as outright racism, fortunately finding a place in PASSOP, an NGO that focuses on protecting refugees in and around Cape Town. Junior now works for the organization’s Sexual Refugees Program to protect, guide and assist those refugees who, just like him, are drawn to Cape Town for its promise of sexual liberation and find the reality somewhat short of the rhetoric.
The experiences of men like Junior suggest that the sexual liberation touted in Cape Town (and South Africa at large) are highly mediated by race and class, social realities still deeply interwoven in South African life. In particular, Cape Town has come under fire in South African media recently for continued perceptions of racial exclusion and discrimination, despite the city’s self-identification as a progressive and inclusive urban center for all citizens. A very public spat over Twitter between provincial leader Helen Zille and activist/singer Simphiwe Dana in January led to a flurry of discussions over race and access to the city. Mail & Guardian columnist Verashni Pillay commented eloquently on the entire situation that “an entire component of human relations and understanding has been largely left out of our dealings with each other in a fractious and hurting post-apartheid landscape.” A series of vitriolic attacks on Pillay for her writing underscored that Cape Town cherished its status as a beacon of tolerance (around both race and orientation), and many observers would simply not believe that people of color would be displeased with life in the city.
“When you have money, it’s quite easy to set yourself free from discrimination and danger,” Junior says. “Many of the white gay and lesbian people here can afford to reside in a safe and progressive area, but the majority of us live in townships. In openly embracing your sexuality there, you run the risk of getting abused, raped or murdered.” Junior’s statement emphasizes that gay and lesbian equality in South Africa is strongly mediated by race and class, and that sexual freedom is often available to those who have the racial and literal capital to afford them.
The BBC article somewhat works to acknowledge this, by quoting film-maker Fanney Tismong, who emphasizes that while “gay couples are increasingly receiving a lot of support in South Africa…there are still issues, particularly for the lesbian community in the country who have experienced shocking discrimination.” Tismong’s statements are true, and there is a shocking prevalence of racial and sexual violence within an ostensibly tolerant nation, particularly against black, lesbian-identified women in townships. Yet, as writer and activist Sekoetlane Jacob Phamodi has argued, the phenomena of targeted violence as well as the term ‘corrective rape’ need to be situated within patriarchy, homophobia, and class structures, lest they run the risk of reinforcing racial and cultural stereotypes and bolstering a particular form of gay rights that reinforce the idea of the ‘enlightened’ South African versus the ‘barbaric’ traditional African that seems to run through the BBC article in general.
While the enshrining of protected rights within South Africa’s constitution continues to mark a significant step towards safeguarding the rights of LGBT-identified people, the freedoms enumerated in the document are not applied evenly or consistently across race, class, and gender in the Rainbow Nation. While celebratory, the rhetoric of ‘enlightened South Africa’ leading the way for a benighted African continent hides as much as it explains; it runs the risk of privileging the enclaves of acceptance for wealthy, white, male South Africans (and similarly identified international tourists) while ignoring the day to day realities of the majority of men and women within the country (and the continent at large).
T.J. Tallie is a PhD student in history at the University of Illinois, focusing on race and masculinity in colonial Africa. He lives and researches in Durban, South Africa. Maria Hengeveld studies gender and sociology at the University of Cape Town; she previously wrote about black lesbian rape in South Africa and homophobia in Malawi.
* Pinkwashing is a term used by the global gay movement to describe the Israeli government’s ‘deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’.
Picture credit: “Nhlanhla Yika” (2011) from Sabelo Mlangeni’s Black Men in Dress.