Melanie Verwoerd

To love who we want is the most basic right

2016-12-14 08:14


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I met Yonela Tyatyeka two years ago on a blistering hot day in Khayelitsha. I was there to interview her for a book on young people who were born in 1994. Yonela, a poet and rapper since her early teens, introduced herself: “I, Yonela Tyatyeka, was born on 9 April in Cape Town to my mother, Boniwe Tyatyeka. I am Xhosa and I am proud of that. I am African and I am proud of that… and… I am a lesbian and I am also proud of that.” 

Yonela excelled at school and was the only one of her siblings to pass matric. She was selected to read some of her work at a parliamentary event and won a nationwide rap competition when she was 13 years old. 

Yonela was born almost exactly 6 years after her sister Ntsiki, who was also a lesbian. Despite their age difference the two sisters were very close. But this all changed suddenly.

Yonela told me: “The 3rd of September 2010 was the last time I saw her. She just disappeared. We looked everywhere for her. The police said that perhaps she went to her boyfriend. We said: ‘No, this person is a lesbian.’ They responded: ‘Then let her go.’ We looked everywhere for her; we kept on praying, but nothing came up.” 

2010 ended without any trace of Ntsiki.  According to Yonela, the police did very little. “We kept on going, we kept on knocking on their door, and they kept on saying: ‘Oh, she's old enough. She'll come back.’ They did not even investigate the leads we got from people.”

Eventually there was a breakthrough. At a family wedding, Yonela’s mother was told by a man, recently released from prison, that they should stop searching for Ntsiki. He had heard that a neighbour and friend of the family, Vuyisile Madikane, had killed her. Apparently he wanted to sleep with Ntsiki, but when she declined and reminded him that she was a lesbian, he raped and killed her. The ex-prisoner went with family members to the police to make a statement and identify the man. Still the police did nothing.

Finally, an uncle of Yonela who was in the police force, but stationed in another jurisdiction, intervened. He brought in his own team and went to Vuyisile Madikane’s house. On 9 September 2011, almost exactly a year after she disappeared, Ntisiki’s decomposed body was found in a black, plastic dustbin in his backyard. Vuyisile confessed readily to killing her, but argued that he defended himself during an argument and accidently killed her. Yonela’s life fell apart. “Seeing her like that, it didn't look like she was a human being. It looked like a skeleton of a cat or something. It didn't look like our sister. Just bones. So small. Her clothes were still right, but she was nothing.”

After they buried Ntsiki in December of 2011, they still had to go through a grueling court case. Ntisiki’s murderer was found guilty of culpable homicide and yet only received a short jail sentence. 

Yonela passed matric and is now studying documentary film making. She has a lovely girlfriend who she is deeply in love with. Yet, she lives in constant fear. 

“I get verbal abuse all the time. Every time I leave the house. They call me shemale and they shout: ‘You'll never be a boy. We will fix you like your sister.”

Last week, 22-year-old Noluvo Swelindawo was abducted from her home close to where Yonela grew up in Khayelitsha. The day before, she was assaulted and beaten up by a man. He was part of a group of men who came back the next night and broke into her house where she was sleeping with her partner. The men beat her and then dragged her out the house. Noluvo’s body was later discovered with a gunshot wound near the N2 highway. 

Although it is not 100% clear what gave rise to the assault, what we do know is that Noluvo, like Yonela, loved another woman. She and Nqabisa Mkatali were in a relationship and it was known in Khayelitsha. Yet, for some bizarre reason, just days after the murder and before any trial, the Deputy Minister of Police Maggie Sotyu said to the press that Noluvo was not killed or assaulted because of her sexual orientation. When asked how she knew she answered: “These people were known to one another.” 

So WHAT minister? We know that the majority of killings, rape and assault of women in this country are by men known to their victims. Surely familiarity does not prove anything? 

It is estimated that as many as 10 women per week are raped because of their sexual orientation. Homophobic rape (I hate the word “corrective rape”) and negative feelings towards homosexuality are on the rise. A study by the Human Science Research Council found that 78% of the respondents thought homosexuality was unacceptable. 

Surely it would be wise for the deputy minister of police not to make statements which play into the ignorance of these homophobic views or diminish the scourge of killings and rapes of lesbians in our country.

Our Constitution is the only one in the world that guarantees protection for people irrespective of their sexual orientation. Yet, worryingly South Africa seems to do very little to make this right a reality. Not only does our police force still not take these crimes seriously, but we also do very little to fend for the rights of the LGBTI community. In fact, recently South Africa abstained from a vote at the UN to appoint an independent expert on the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Under apartheid the state, church and society tried to control who people loved. Today, we all acknowledge that this was inhumane and totally unacceptable. Yet, we seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to the hundreds of women who are brutally tortured and killed for no other reason than because of whom they love. 

When I asked Yonela what she wanted most in life, the 21-year-old did not dream of fame or wealth. Instead she answered: “For me to walk free in the street without fear.” Surely, that is not too much to ask?

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    violence against women  |  rape

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