Newsmaker: Reluctant activist fights for justice in face of police apathy

2012-03-17 15:52

‘Please do not

feed the fear,” reads a sign on the notice board at the OUT clinic in Pretoria.

It refers to gay men and the HIV crisis.

Shouting its name in rainbow colours

from the street, the two-storey house in Hatfield contains one of only three

clinics in South Africa that offer free health services to lesbian, gay,

bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

Because of its mandate, it’s also a clinic with a voice. It has

lobbied in support of same-sex marriage and against a wave of lesbian murders

across the country.

However, I was there to speak to OUT’s director, Dawie Nel, about

the reality that eight openly gay men have been found murdered in similar

circumstances in Gauteng in the past two years.

The sign could just as well read: “Please feed the fear!” OUT, a

health services, research and advocacy group, and in particular Nel, has been a

sole voice calling for police action against the crimes.

“The gay community needs to be alarmed,” says OUT worker Jay Matlou

as we wait for Nel to join us. “We were also the ones who raised the issue that

these men probably met their murderers online.”

I look at the media that OUT has been distributing, warning about

the dangers of telephone chatrooms and dating sites.

When Nel does join us, he is nowhere near as flamboyant as his desk

staff. His greying hair is kept short and his office is sparse, a place of work.

Some people have the perception that, because the 46-year-old educationalist is

quoted so often in the newspapers, he is something of an attention seeker or


But the man we meet speaks softly, with the rolling “r” of an

Afrikaans accent, choosing his words carefully. He dislikes generalisations,

always referring to scientific research to make a point.

“I’m not saying it’s a serial killer, but the similarities in the

modus operandi are too striking to overlook.”

The men were all found with their hands tied behind their backs.

Seven of them were strangled. There was no sign of forced entry and little

was stolen.

He’s quietly pleased that the police have announced a task team

that will place the eight investigations into one unit, but is shy to take the


“It’s a combination of our voice and publicity from the media,” he


“One of the victims, Jason Wessenaar, worked here. It spurred us to

launch a campaign to pressure the police to act against what looks like

prejudice-based crimes against a vulnerable community. We provide services for

men who have sex with men. We understand the lifestyle and the dangers. We want

to help.”

Nel answers questions about his personal life in short, suspicious


“I don’t think

I need to be exciting. Just being normal is enough for me. To go home, have a

good meal and watch a murder mystery on TV.”

He was raised in a

“middle-of-the-road conservative” household in Pretoria and came out at the age

of 22. He discovered student politics, but ended up working in human resources

for the Post Office.

OUT was started in 1994 by the Reforming Church. When it was

formalised as an NGO in 1997, he became its first director “because I thought I

could be useful”.

I ask him if he considers himself an activist. He pauses.

“No. Yes and no. I think I’m an activist because I do not like

injustice and would like to address that – but not in a political, flag-waving

way. For me, it’s trying to make a material difference in people’s lives where

they don’t have that opportunity.”

That may mean

medical care and HIV education, or lobbying for hate crimes to be recognised in

South African law. On our way out, Nel is more relaxed – pleased to have the

interview behind him.

He believes OUT will have to continue its lobby in the

face of “general police apathy” and has made an appointment to see Deputy

Justice Minister Andries Nel next week.

I ask him if OUT’s

outreach is working. Are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex

community in the townships more open about who they are?

“I think people are more out,” he says. “But I suppose the danger

of being more out is that you’re much more of a target.”

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