The scars on his arms and thumb are faint but visible.
They’re a daily reminder of what he’s had to endure and it’s one of the reasons he wants to help others like him – so they don’t have to fear being gay.
Wandile Sincwala isn’t hiding his light under a bushel – in fact, he’s embracing who he is. Glittering gowns, shimmering sashes and towering heels are par for the course when he’s in drag and he hopes to take home the crown at this year’s Miss Drag South Africa competition in Port Elizabeth.
When we catch up with Wandile he’s stylish as ever in a white suit, platform boots and a wide-brimmed hat. It’s hard to miss him and everyone in the busy township of Daveyton in Johannesburg seems to recognise him.
“Somizy, Somizy”, come the cries as he walks in Daveyton’s streets and you suddenly realise he does somewhat resemble Somizi Mhlongo – he has the same high cheekbones and prominent forehead of the beloved performer and presenter.
“Somizy isn’t a name I gave myself,” Wandile, 30, tells DRUM. “My friends and the community gave it to me because they say we look alike.”
Having seen Somizi blaze a trail for the gay community, Wandile has gladly adopted the stage name and hopes to follow in his role model’s footsteps.
That’s why he entered the Miss Drag South Africa competition – but it’s not all glitz and glamour, he says. “There’s a category called drag with a purpose so before you get on stage there’s a lot you must do. I’ve decided to focus on teaching my community about homophobia.”
Wandile wants to use Miss Drag SA as a stage to shine the light on gay rights and prejudice. The openly gay young man has first-hand experience of homophobic violence. He was brutally stabbed six times during a coordinated attack while taking a taxi in 2014. He’s recovered from the physical trauma of that day, he says, showing the scars on his arms and thumb. But the emotional damage haunts him.
“Whenever I get into a taxi I’m fearful. I always look to see who’s driving. I feel comfortable if it’s an older man. Can you imagine what it’s like to have a fear about who’s driving before you step into a taxi?”
Wandile didn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary on the day of his attack, he recalls. He had hailed a taxi to take him to rehearsals in another part of Daveyton for a pageant he was competing in. There were three other passengers when he boarded and Wandile took a seat behind the young driver.
“Instead of going in the direction I wanted to go, the driver asked if he could first drop off the lady in the taxi,” he recalls. It was broad daylight and Wandile had no reason to suspect anything untoward, so he accommodated the driver’s request.
“There were other people in there so I couldn’t complain about not being dropped off first.” When they stopped after the woman was dropped off Wandile thought the driver was picking up another passenger.
He noticed a guy approach the taxi and speak to the driver. A few minutes later, the man walked over to Wandile’s window and began to insult him.
“He called me stabane [a derogatory term referred to gay men) and all these names but I didn’t pay him any attention. The more I didn’t pay attention to him, the angrier he got. He wanted my phone but I didn’t give it to him.” Wandile wondered why the driver wasn’t helping him or driving off – but before he could ask for help the man took out a knife.
“He leaned into the window and started stabbing me. He stabbed me all over my arms because I was trying to block him, and he kept trying to pull me out.” With no help from the passengers, a bleeding Wandile tried to flee the taxi.
“When I headed to the door to get out, the guy who was sitting at the back came closer and started strangling me. That’s when all of them started swearing at me.”
At that point Wandile realised the group was working together. “As the attack went on they kept swearing at me, asking for my phone. I just told them to take whatever they wanted. All I wanted was for them to leave me alone because I was afraid of getting seriously hurt.”
After stealing his phone and bag containing his cash and other belongings, the men bolted from the taxi. Wandile, whose white pants “were completely covered in blood”, went to a nearby clinic for help after taking the taxi’s registration details to report the case to the police.
One person was arrested, Colonel Lungelo Dlamini from Daveyton Police Station says, but the suspect was freed after the case was withdrawn due to lack of evidence. Wandile feels he was stonewalled by police when he enquired about his case.
“I’ve done so many follow-ups on my case but still nothing so I’ve given up. Is it because of my sexuality they treat me like this?”
There is a silver lining to his suffering – Wandile has found healing through his community.
“We often have round-table discussions in my area where we discuss our experiences. We invite people from the police and health sector, and any place where we suffer any kind of discrimination, to talk to us. That was really helpful in helping me get over my pain and anger.”
Wandile grew up in Daveyton with siblings Bongiwe, 23, and Thabo, 21, and started questioning his sexuality as a teenager.
“I grew up playing with girls but when I began to develop feelings, I could see I wasn’t attracted to them. I was developing feelings for guys. I’d never see them as friends, but as potential boyfriends.”
He shared his thoughts with his mother, Mary, 45. “She understood who I was even before I had accepted myself. For me to come out and be myself was never a problem for her.” But the rest of the township wasn’t as accepting.
“Being gay in Daveyton you must know that the person who you sit and laugh with during the day is the same person that will attack you at night. I have to make sure I walk in a group and not just walk anywhere – it’s for my own protection.”
Wandile, who works as a hairdresser at a salon, loves getting made up. He entered his first pageant in 2012 while trying to figure out his identity as a gay man and won Miss Uthingo that year. Entering under his stage name, Somizy Sincwala, he also won Miss Mzansi Pride in 2014 and was crowned Miss Gay Daveyton in 2015.
He was nominated to enter Miss Drag SA last year but couldn’t afford the flights to Cape Town where the competition was held. He started saving money last year in case he was shortlisted and is delighted to be flying to Port Elizabeth for the national competition.
Pageants aren’t all about pouting lips and perfect outfits, he says. Wandile loves the confidence it gives him – and the platform from which he can campaign.
“My hope is to wake up in the morning and have no worries or fears about how I’ll be treated. My wish is to be seen as normal. I know it will take a lot for them to stop staring and understand, but I have hope we’ll slowly get there.”