A lifetime of fighting for gay rights: Funeka Soldaat tells her own story

2019-02-10 11:13
Gender activist Funeka Soldaat (Tammy Petersen/News24)

Gender activist Funeka Soldaat (Tammy Petersen/News24)

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Her book has all the makings of a gripping bestseller – a fearless hero, numerous near-death experiences, all centred around what, at the time, was seen as forbidden love.

But there's nothing fictional about Uhambo, by Funeka Soldaat. It tells her life story in her own words, from realising that her tomboyish behaviour was more than it seemed, to surviving a heinous attack for which her assailants have never been punished.

The book is aimed at young, black lesbians and their families, the lifelong gender activist says.

"The issue of homosexuality being un-African still [exists] and is going to continue. We still have to deal with it. It's important that it sinks into people's head that homosexuality has nothing to do with culture, religion or whatever. It's who you are, and it's up to you to choose how you live your life."

In her book, the struggle veteran reflects on growing up in the 1960s, when coming out was "not so fashionable", campaigning against hate crimes after being gang-raped over 20 years ago, and the hurdles she had to get over to eventually marry her wife, Ntandokazi.

"For years, I focused so much on what's happening out there. I never thought of myself, never reflected on things that were so hurtful in my family growing up, how I struggled as a lesbian when I was just a confused kid," she says.

"And it's important that we not allow other people to write our history, because they always write it wrong. I wanted to write [my own] so that it’s correct."

'You can't just kill because of how she lives her life'

Soldaat is a co-founder of Free Gender, a black lesbian activist and advocacy organisation based in Khayelitsha. It was established almost 10 years ago as a group which lobbied for justice for Zoliswa Nkonyana, a teenager who was stabbed and stoned to death because of her sexual orientation.

Her killers – Lubabalo Ntlabathi, Sicelo Mase, Luyanda Londzi and Mbulelo Damba – were eventually sentenced by the Khayelitsha Regional Court to 18 years, four of which were suspended for five years.

Free Gender was a starting point with a focus of making sure there was less violence towards lesbians in townships, she says.

"[Gay rights] is a human struggle. You can't just kill [someone] because of how she lives her life."

Soldaat herself has endured a number of physical attacks, including being stabbed with knives and pangas, by attackers seemingly offended by who she is.

In 1995, she survived so-called "corrective" rape when she was attacked by four armed men while walking home.

She attempted to report it at the Lingelethu West police station, where she was told there was no police van to attend to her complaint.

'The rape shook my world'

She sat in the charge office until two officers arrived and were instructed to "take this rape victim" to the clinic. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, that's my name now. Rape victim'."

After being taken to the clinic in the back of a police van, a nurse there referred her back to the authorities.

The officers had left and she had to walk back to the police station alone, in the middle of the night. Soldaat again tried to lay a charge, but had to tell her story to two different officers who asked her what had happened.

She didn't open her case and slept outside the police station, as it was too dangerous to walk home.

"The rape shook my world," Soldaat says.

"I nearly died in all those incidents. But it would be wrong to die in silence. I would rather die with people knowing [why]."

For years, she held on to her animosity towards the police.

Workshops, conferences and seminars to address underlying homophobia and the secondary victimisation of victims in the police ranks has seen her feelings towards the authorities change.

"Now I work with them," Soldaat says. She is actively involved in her local community policing forum.

Soldaat recalls the difficulty she had in trying to set a date to marry her then-girlfriend of five years, Ntando, in 2011.

The Khayelitsha Home Affairs office simply never had a date available when she explained she wanted to marry a woman. She travelled to the Cape Town office, where there was "no drama" or unhelpful staff.

Family love

Originally from Steynsburg in the Eastern Cape, Soldaat laughs when she speaks about her loved ones in the province she still considers home.

"When I visited all those years ago, they said [my being gay] was just a phase, and that by the age of 40, I would have outgrown it. I'm going to be 60 soon," she jokes.

She and her own mother were estranged for 10 years after she came out.

"I was her only child. She was disappointed because she wanted grandchildren," Soldaat recalls.

It's important to Soldaat that parents who suspect their child is gay read her book and realise the importance of familial love and acceptance.

Her grandmother Nomawuntini loved her unconditionally. She is one of the people to whom Soldaat has dedicated her book.

"My grandmother never asked me anything [about my sexuality]. She got so mad when other people dared," she recalls fondly.

"Whenever I have been attacked, I believe my ancestors always looked after me. My grandmother is working overtime."

Abuse also comes from 'within'

Soldaat says she is growing old and needs to pass the baton to younger activists to take their issues forward.

Modern lesbians have freedom to have fun and explore their sexuality, she believes, but need to find a balance.

"You can't leave politics out of it. Being a lesbian, being a woman, is politics," Soldaat insists.

Soldaat adds that same sex rape is an issue that needs more accountability, as "the trash" also comes "from inside".

"Domestic violence within, abuse within – nobody is touching these issues. All of us are so focused on looking at the people who are messing with our rights on the outside, we don’t look at what is happening inside.

"Patriarchy is happening on the inside, too much. You have masculine lesbians and feminine lesbians. There are butch [masculine] lesbians who are abusive to their partners and nobody is talking about it."

Uhambo will be launched at the Isivivana Centre in Mzala Street, Khayelitsha on February 15 at 15:00, and at 6 Spin Street Restaurant, Cape Town on February 25 at 16:00.

Copies will be on sale for R150 in Khayelitsha and R200 in Cape Town.

Read more on:    cape town  |  lgbti rights  |  lgbtqi  |  activism

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