Activists mourn another murdered lesbian

2013-12-19 14:06

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Maleshwane Radebe died from a stab wound to her neck after she and her girlfriend were attacked and robbed in her shack in the East Rand township of Ratanda. Charl Blignaut spent time with Inkanyiso, the visual activists documenting the ever-growing number of rapes and murders of lesbians in South Africa

“They’d been out with friends that night, the sixth of December. When she and her girlfriend did go out, they moved in a group, eight of them, four couples. She did everything she was told to stay safe. But it didn’t help,” says Charmain Carrol.

“They were vulnerable at the place they called home ... When I saw the shack I asked myself, ‘Would I feel safe behind those doors?’ ”

At about 3.30am on December 7, Maleshwane Radebe’s girlfriend came running outside, screaming, according to neighbours.

“She’d been stabbed in the face, arm and leg but managed to escape.”

Two men had broken into the shack and attacked the couple, stealing their phones and Radebe’s wallet. Radebe died on the scene.

The shack where murdered lesbian Maleshwane Radebe lived with her girlfriend in Ratanda.

“She was openly lesbian. Everyone in the area knew ... She was 36. The same age as me,” says Carrol.

In a sparse kitchen in an urban Joburg apartment, the Inkanyiso project manager, writer, photographer and community outreach liaison is telling me Radebe’s story in a calm, quiet voice.

Inkanyiso’s founder, internationally celebrated photographer Zanele Muholi, sits with us, uploading photos of Radebe’s funeral on the organisation’s blog.

The internet connection is slow and the staff is skeletal, but the band of brave, self-funded black queers will cover the murder relentlessly and in full colour – the way they do every such murder.

“She was buried on Saturday, the same day as Nelson Mandela,” says Muholi. “Obviously her story never made the mainstream media because there was so much happening that week.”

Seated in front of Maleshwane Radebe’s coffin is her uncle on the left and mother in the centre.

I ask her if this year has been worse than previous ones. Are more lesbians being murdered because they are more visible? Is it just that journalists are reporting more? Or is the situation getting worse for a doubly vulnerable group?

“Let’s just say it’s been another painful year for most of us who identify as queer, living on the fringes of our society,” she says.

Muholi had been in Amsterdam receiving the prestigious Prince Claus Award for cultural pioneers when she heard the news. It came via Carrol from a Whatsapp message from lesbian activists in the area. Carrol was dispatched to document the case.

“Maleshwane was the breadwinner at home,” she explains. “She worked in the Escort butchery in Heidelberg so you can imagine what kind of money she was earning. But still she supported her whole family ... I keep thinking what they’re going to be doing for Christmas. Their hope is gone.”

Carrol says Radebe’s mother told her that her daughter had always been out as a lesbian and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to kill her.

“Her friends and colleagues say she disliked violence. She was always full of jokes. When someone was angry, she’d make them laugh ... Nobody had a bad thing to say about her ... In the church (for her funeral) there were more than 200 people. It was emotional. People were crying, fainting.”

Maleshwane Radebe’s friends remember her by wearing T-shirts bearing her image.

Queer groups turned up in matching T-shirts, boldly visible as always. If you look through Inkanyiso’s blog you’ll find similar funerals documented.

Many of the dead lesbians had been raped first and targeted by hate. Often the activists will take to the streets in protest after the funeral. They have given up on relying on police and the state’s promises to investigate “corrective rape” and lesbian murder.

There was no sign that Radebe was raped or specifically attacked for her gender expression, but to the activists in the kitchen this is still a hate crime, targeting a vulnerable couple.

Family and friends gather around the grave.

“I’ve worked in Ratanda quite a lot,” says Muholi. “Especially when I worked for an NGO in 2000 and 2001. It may be in Gauteng, but it’s far away from Joburg.”

Adds Carrol: “It’s R31 to get a taxi one way. If you have no money that’s a luxury.”

Muholi nods. “The language spoken by lesbians living on the margins is different to those of us in the CBD. What strikes one about Ratanda is poverty, a lack of resources and development. I live in town, I can afford a flat. There, they can just kick down your door.”

I ask the difficult question – did being a lesbian have anything to do with a case of robbery and murder? Is it really a hate crime?

Muholi shrugs. “Only the police will be able to confirm if she was targeted – if the case ever goes to court. But what is a hate crime? We don’t even have a specific definition of hate crime in South Africa.”

The two activists take turns chipping in.

“It was a violent attack.”

“Two black lesbians known in the area. It’s the same scenario as many of the rapes and the hate we have witnessed.”

“The space where they were attacked – crime scenes have come to landmark black lesbian identities.”

“And why is it always the butch lesbian who is murdered?”

Says Muholi: “Maleshwane will become a statistic for murdered lesbians. Whether it was a hate crime or not, we have to respond as the lesbian community.”

Of course, it’s not the only work that Inkanyiso does. It also celebrates the nation’s queerness in every shade and form.

On the same Saturday as Radebe’s funeral, the team then headed to Soweto to cover a beauty pageant, the 2013 Miss Gay Lesbian Soweto finals.

Inkanyiso recently splashed out in its coverage of a lesbian wedding. One of the women getting married had survived a horrifying attack that Inkanyiso had documented. Now it was documenting her strength to overcome and publicly express her love.

Family and friends gather around the grave.

Visit Inkanyiso’s blog here.

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