EXTRACT | Nechama Brodie: ‘We only write about them when they are dead’ - murder of lesbians in SA

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 'Femicide in South Africa’ cover
'Femicide in South Africa’ cover

In her book Femicide in South Africa, Dr Nechama Brodie looks at femicide in the country over the past 40 years. In this extract, she details the violent history black lesbians have endured more than three decades since the first Gay and Lesbian pride march. 


In 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela was released, Johannesburg held the very first Gay and Lesbian Pride march, and Simon Nkoli, Beverly Ditsie and Justice Edwin Cameron were among the speakers. The marchers chanted: "Out of the closet and into the streets."

It was a significant moment, even though it would take several more years before gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) individuals would be granted similar rights and protections as hetero- and cissexual South Africans, first under an interim and then a final Constitution which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. 

Between 1994 and 2005 a number of legal amendments were made and new laws introduced which formalised the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals. The criminalisation of sodomy was declared unconstitutional. Same-sex partners were granted similar rights in terms of immigration and financial benefits as those granted to different-sex spouses or partners. Trans and intersex individuals were allowed to change their legally recognised sex. Same-sex couples were allowed to jointly adopt children or adopt each other's children. Lesbian couples were allowed to be registered as the natural, legitimate parents of a child that one of them had born. There were also challenges to the constitutionality of the Marriage Act, which did not then allow same-sex unions to be recognised as marriages. By late 2005, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Marriage Act was unconstitutional and gave Parliament one year in which to remedy the matter.

But being "out of the closet" also meant that LGBTI individuals were more openly targeted for hate, harassment, victimisation and violence – even as these new laws were passed, supposedly protecting their rights. Although this text focuses on violence against black lesbians, it is important to note that the growth in hate crimes was experienced by all members of the LGBTI community, with transgender individuals experiencing even higher levels of violence, as a group, than lesbians or gay men. 

Black lesbians face double jeopardy 

This is also a good place to discuss why this is about "black lesbians" and not just lesbians, and also what the concept of "black lesbians" represents as a group, even though it is quite obviously made up of individual black women who are by no means homogenous because of their sexual preferences.

In Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Jane Bennett, Vasu Reddy and Relebohile Moletsane's book The Country We Want to Live In: Hate crimes and Homophobia in the Lives of Black Lesbian South Africans (HSRC Press, 2010), they note that, while there were risks to "singling out a particular group of people as targets of gender-based violence", black lesbians were "doubly vulnerable". This was because, firstly, although all women in South Africa were vulnerable to violence, there was a correlation between increased poverty and increased vulnerability and, in South Africa, being black meant there was a greater association with being poor or having less access to resources. Not only did black women live in environments in which, just as other black women, they were vulnerable to attack, they also lived in places where cultures were often deeply homophobic and in which sexual violence had become a "popular weapon".

In the 1980s, the country's ongoing rape crisis had started to take on chilling new aspects, including gang rapes that became known as "jackrolling". Jackrolling initially involved the selection and abduction of a victim, usually a woman who (her attackers believed) presented herself as if she was "better than them" and "out of reach". There were echoes of these sentiments in the growing number of stories that began to emerge during the 1990s of black lesbian women being targeted, being beaten and raped by men, supposedly as a means of "teaching them how to be proper women". This gradually became referred to as "curative" or "corrective" rape, and involved three distinct aspects: one was the punishment of the woman, for her choice of sexual identity and her lifestyle; a second was the humiliation of the victim – as with jackrolling, this was often achieved through gang rapes; the third was the repulsive misnomer of "transforming" lesbians into heterosexual women through violent penetration.

Even as newspapers carried the occasional story about black lesbians' struggles for acceptance individually or within their communities in the context of the changing legislative landscape, almost every single one of these women's accounts also included incidents of violence, most frequently rape. Sometimes these women were even raped with the knowledge of their family members, who either actively encouraged the assault in the hope of ridding the young woman of her homosexuality, or tacitly accepted such attacks as what should happen to "girls like that". 

Surveys from the time also indicated fewer than half of such assaults were ever reported to the police, and that nearly three-quarters of gay men and women did not believe the police would take their complaints seriously (a sentiment which, anecdotally, seems to have been backed up by the horrific experiences of those who reported their rapes).

It was in this context that, in 2002, Zanele Muholi and poet and Donna Smith, both of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, established a campaign called The Rose Has Thorns, which researched and provided legal and other support for black lesbian women who had been raped and assaulted, and began to push for the recognition of these acts of violence as hate crimes (something that has still not been achieved).

Where history, hate and HIV collide.

The use of rape as a means of punishment, particularly of black women, needs to take at least one other factor into account, and that is the impact of HIV and Aids. By the mid-1990s HIV infections were growing at an exponential rate in South Africa. Between 1993 and 1999, HIV prevalence increased by over 400%, making South Africa the country with the fastest-growing epidemic in the world.

Under the direction of HIV-denialist Thabo Mbeki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, new life-saving antiretroviral medications were blocked in favour of recommendations of beetroot, African potato, garlic, olive oil and the scam medicine Virodene. Life expectancy plummeted and, because of the state's deliberate misinformation programmes, the disease remained deeply stigmatised even as infections soared, which contributed to rising anger.   

In 1998 an HIV activist and educator named Gugu Dlamini was stoned and beaten to death near KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal after publicly revealing her HIV positive status. Seven years later, in December 2005, another Aids activist, Lorna Mlosana, a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign, was gang-raped in a bathroom in Khayelitsha. When her five rapists discovered she was HIV positive, they beat her to death.

Women were also punished by being potentially infected with HIV by their rapists. Among the growing number of news reports of black lesbians being targeted and gang-raped because of their sexual preferences, were stories of women who had found out they had been infected with HIV, or who had died of Aids-related complications a few years after being raped.

Lesbians targeted even as courts recognise same-sex marriage 

In 2006, not coincidentally the same year of Jacob Zuma's rape trial, and the year when the National Assembly passed a law recognising same-sex marriage, local newspapers started reporting on murders involving black lesbians who had been targeted and killed by groups of men. 

In February 2006, 19-year-old openly lesbian soccer player Zoliswa Nkonyana was at a shebeen in Khayelitsha with another lesbian friend of hers when a group of straight girls taunted them for being tomboys. Zoliswa apparently replied, "We are not tomboys, we are lesbians. We are just doing our thing so leave us alone."

One of the (straight) women went and summoned a group of men, who pursued Zoliswa and her friend across a field, eventually catching up with Zoliswa (the friend managed to get away) before using bricks to pelt her and a gold club to beat her until she died. It would take nearly six years and some 60 court appearances before four of the nine men eventually charged with her killing would be found guilty. 

Zoliswa's murder was the first prominent example of news reporting about a black lesbian who was killed for being "out". The media's response to the case quickly indicated why this might have been the case. When the Sunday Times covered the murder a few days after her death, the newspaper ran the story together with a photograph of several other lesbian women in Khayelitsha who had been friends or acquaintances of Zoliswa. As a result of the news coverage, these women, too, were targeted, and there were subsequent reports that at least one of them had been raped. At least one of Zoliswa's friends – a lesbian identified as "T", who attended court protests at the pre-trial hearings – was stabbed by two men in Nyanga in retaliation for giving testimony.

A similar situation occurred in 2007 after television programme Carte Blanche ran an insert on lesbian rapes and murders, in which a number of black women were identified as lesbians in the footage. Several of the women featured said they were unable to return home after the show was aired because they feared for their safety.

This may have been one of the factors which had inhibited, or which continued to inhibit, reporting of hate crimes and violence against lesbians – because of the very real fear that identifying the victim in one crime would implicate other women, and that this might make them targets in turn.

From 2006 onward, a pattern began to emerge in media coverage of the rape and murders of black lesbian women, the stories bearing uncanny resemblances to each other even when they were a decade apart. Almost certainly, the cases that were reported in the news did not represent the extent of such killings in real life. But, as above, there were a number of very real deterrents to reporting these types of crimes (the risk of others becoming targets, the poor treatment of lesbian complainants by the police). Plus, this type of aggravated homicide – the rape and killing of lesbians – was not (and is still not) recognised as a specific category of crime apart from that of general rape and homicide, and so there is no separate police data.

Which means all we have to go on really, are a handful of news stories, and information collected by various LGBTI organisations around the country (which is usually the basis for any media reporting – journalists are typically alerted to a murder by a local or regional rights group). Below is a list of some of the incidents that have been reported in the press between 2006 and 2018, where black lesbians were murdered allegedly because of their sexual orientation.

2007

In April, 16-year-old lesbian Madoe Mafubedu was raped and stabbed to death in Soweto. (There is very limited information about this case, and there are no reports that anyone was arrested for this murder.)

In June, Simangele Nhlapho, a member of an HIV support group co-ordinated by the Positive Women's Network (an HIV community programme) was raped and murdered. Her 2-year-old child was also murdered during the attack, and it was reported that both of the infant's legs had been broken during the beating. (It is not clear from news reports that Simangele was a lesbian, but her death was very obviously linked to her work in HIV, which had links to lesbian victims the following month.) (There are no news reports indicating that anyone was arrested for these murders.)

On 7 July, 34-year-old Sizakele Sigasa, a lesbian and gay rights activist and an outreach co-ordinator at the Positive Women's Network, was raped, tortured and murdered together with her friend, 23-year-old Salome Masooa. The women's bodies were found lying next to each other just a few metres from the car they had been travelling in. Sizakele had three bullet wounds in her head and three near her collarbone. Salome had a single gunshot wound to the head. Their killers had used Sizakele's underwear and her shoelaces to tie her hands and her ankles. (Four suspects were originally arrested for these murders but there was no evidence connecting them to the crimes and they were set free. As of 2017, nobody has been convicted for either of these murders.)

On 22 July, the naked body of 23-year-old lesbian 'Sdo' Thokozani Qwabe was found in a field near a community hall in Ezakheni, Ladysmith. She had been raped and possibly stoned to death. Two men were arrested and charged with her killing but were acquitted. 

2008

On the night of 27 April – Freedom Day – 31-year-old former Banyana Banyana national soccer player, soccer coach and lesbian activist Eudy Simelane was attacked by a group of men after leaving a local pub in KwaThema. She was robbed, gang-raped and stabbed 25 times before being left naked to die in a ditch. Five men were arrested in connection with her murder, but only two were convicted. Themba Mvubu received a life sentence plus 35 years and Thato Mphithi was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

A month later, on 26 May, 25-year-old lesbian Khanyiswa (Lhoyie) Hani was found murdered in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. She had been stabbed, her throat had been cut, and her teeth knocked out. (No suspects were arrested.)

On 20 June, 21-year-old lesbian Sibongile Mphelo was raped and murdered, her body discovered in a patch of open veld in Strand in Cape Town. Sibongile had been mutilated during the attack. Her vagina and part of her calf had been cut off. Condoms were discovered next to her body. (No suspects have ever been arrested.)

2009

On 19 June, 37-year-old soccer player Girlie 'S'Gelane' Nkosi was stabbed in a nightclub in KwaThema (Girlie had played with the late Eudy Simelane in one of the local clubs). She died of her injuries a few days later. Girlie, who had been attacked a number of times before her death, was an outspoken gay and lesbian rights activist, and had been a part of the 070707 Campaign (named after the date of the murders of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa). (Girlie's killers were never found.)

Author's note: In August 2009, Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana walked out of an exhibition of work by Zanele Muholi which featured black lesbian couples. Xingwana reportedly described Muholi's photographs as 'immoral, offensive and going against nation building'

2010

In September 2010, 21-year-old lesbian Nontsikelelo Tyatyeka went missing from her home in Nyanga. A year later her body was discovered in a Wheelie Bin outside the house of her neighbour, Vuyisile Madikane. The neighbour was subsequently charged with her murder.

In November 2010, another 21-year-old, newspaper seller Ncumisa Mzamelo was murdered and her body left in a disused toilet in Bhambayi, KwaZulu-Natal. Ncumiza had been set alight and the body was so badly burned it had to be identified through dental records.

2011

On 28 March, the body of 20-year-old lesbian Nokuthula Radebe was found in an abandoned building in Thokoza. Her pants had been pulled down and a plastic bag used to cover her face. Shoelaces had been used to strangle her.

A few weeks later, on 24 April, the body of 24-year-old mother of two, Noxolo Nogwaza, was found in a stream in KwaThema. Noxolo was an activist and a member of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee. Human Rights Watch reported that her face had been disfigured by stoning, and that broken glass had been used to stab her multiple times. Used condoms were found on and near her body. 

Two days after she went missing, on 4 May, the body of 23-year-old Nqobile Khumalo was discovered in a shallow grave in Kwa-Mashu. The following year, a man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for her rape and murder. Some news reports alleged that the killer was a former boyfriend of Nqobile, who murdered her for having a relationship with a woman.

2012

On 23 June, a gunman wearing a balaclava burst into a home in Mau Mau, Nyanga, Cape Town, and shot 21-year-old lesbian Phumeza Nkolonzi three times in front of her mother and her niece. (No one has ever been arrested for her murder.)

On 30 June, 28-year-old school clerk Sanna Supa was shot three times while opening the gate to her driveway of her house in Braamfischerville, Soweto. (No arrests have been made for her killing.)

The same day, 30 June, the body of 29-year-old Hendrietta (Andritha) Thapelo Morifi was discovered on the bed of her home in Polo Park, Mokopane. Andritha's throat had been slit from ear to ear, and a braai fork had been used to stab her. Blood-soaked underwear was also found at the scene and it was believed that she had been raped. Andritha, who was openly lesbian, was survived by her 2-year-old daughter, who was with a relative at the time of the attack. Two men were arrested but were later released, reportedly due to a lack of evidence. 

In August, 25-year-old lesbian Mandisa Mbambo was raped, beaten and stabbed at her home in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal. Four men were arrested for the crime, but there is no information in the press as to whether any of them were convicted. 

On 23 September, the body of lesbian Desiree Ntombana Mafu (also Ntombana Desire "Deezay"  Mafu) was discovered in the Roodepoort Cemetery near Dobsonville, Soweto.

On 9 November, 19-year-old Sihle Sikoji was stabbed in the chest with a spear by five male gang members in Samora Machel, Nyanga, in Cape Town. Sikoji was a member of Luleki Sizwe, an organisation that supported lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. (No arrests have been made in connection with her murder.)

2013

On 21 April, the body of 36-year-old lesbian Patricia Mashigo was discovered in Daveyton. It appeared that she had been beaten with or stoned to death. Patricia was a saleswoman and mother of two children. (No arrests were ever made for her killing.)

On 30 June, the body of 26-year-old lesbian Duduzile Zozo was discovered just 10 metres from her home in Thokoza. A toilet brush had been violently shoved into her vagina, and it was reported that she had died as a result of the organ damage this had caused. One of Duduzile's neighbours, Lekgoa Motleleng, was later convicted of her murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

2014

In August, 24-year-old lesbian Disebo Gift Makau, a college student, was found dead in Tshing location in Ventersdorp. She had been raped and strangled with wire and a shoelace, and a hosepipe had been forced into her mouth. Gift's childhood friend Stoffel Botlhokwane was found guilty of her rape and murder and was sentenced to two life sentences, plus an additional 15 years for theft.

2015

On 16 December, the body of 21-year-old Pascalina Motshidisi Melamu was discovered in an open field in Evaton. Her eyes, breasts and vagina had been cut out and her body set alight. Four people were arrested, but there are no further news reports indicating whether they were charged.

2016

On 19 March, the night of her 19th birthday, student Lucia Naido was stabbed to death a few metres from her home in Katlehong. Her mother heard her daughter's screams and ran out to help her, but Lucia died on the way to hospital. (No arrests have been reported.)

In May, 47-year-old police clerk Nosisa Sonjani was found murdered at her home on the SAPS Faure base in Kleinvlei. The cord of a toaster had been used to strangle her. Nosisa's employee, Lwando Dubha, was later arrested, after fleeing to the Eastern Cape. Dubha was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years for murder and 15 years for robbery.

In December, 22-year-old lesbian and LGBT activist Noluvo Swelindavo was abducted from her home in Driftsands, Khayelitsha, by a group of men. Her body was found the next day near the N2 highway, with a gunshot wound. Noluvo's girlfriend, who had hidden in a gap between the bed and the wall when the attack happened, was able to identify one of the assailants as a neighbour, Sigcine Mdani, who had previously attacked Noluvo because of her sexual orientation. Mdani was later found guilty of abduction and murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

2017

On 4 April, a badly burned body was discovered in the township of Maokeng near Kroonstad. A month later, DNA tests confirmed that the victim was 28-year-old Nonki Smous, a welder who had lived openly as a lesbian for many years. (Three men who were arrested in connection with the murder and robbery were subsequently released.)

In May, 27-year-old Lerato 'Tambai' Moloi was raped and murdered in Naledi, Soweto. Her half-naked body was found in an open space by community members who were cutting grass near the railway line. Lerato had been stabbed, and there were rocks near her head. Photographs of Lerato's corpse were widely shared on social media. The following year, Petroos Tsotang Mokhgethi, Lerato's friend and " drinking buddy", was convicted of her rape and murder. He received two life sentences, one for each charge.

Also in May, friends 28-year-old Bongeka Phungula and 24-year-old Popi Qwabe, who had recently moved to Soweto from KwaZulu-Natal, went missing. Their bodies were found days later in separate locations in Tladi and Naledi. Both women had been raped before being killed. A man was arrested, but the National Prosecuting Authority said there was not enough evidence to link him to the case and so the case was not placed on the court's roll. 

In December, lesbian couple Joey van Niekerk and Anisha van Niekerk* were tortured, gang raped and murdered. It later emerged that the murders were allegedly part of a plot by a tenant who wanted to take over the couple's land where they lived in Mooinooi. The man believed to be the mastermind behind the plot, Koos Strydom, committed suicide while his case was under way.

* Joey and Anisha were both white women, but they have been included on this list because they were specifically targeted and tortured on the basis of their sexuality, and the fact that they were a married female couple rather than a heterosexual couple. 

2018

On New Year's Day, 23-year-old Noxolo Xakeka was harassed, assaulted and then stabbed three times because of her sexual orientation. She died in hospital later that day, leaving behind a 6-year-old child. Her killer pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison. 

Transgender victims

In addition to the lesbians who were murdered above, each year there are also a number of hate killings of transgender women, including gay men who occasionally dressed as or presented as women. (The many victims listed below each identified differently; I have tried to refer to them according to their chosen gender and identity, based on available press reports. It is, of course, not possible to ask them how they wish to be identified.) As with lesbian killings, it is almost certain that these deaths, too, are underreported in the media, although this may change as transgender individuals become more visible – although even that, of course, sadly, remains a risky act in itself.

2008

In June 2008, 25-year-old Daisy Dube was shot and killed in Yeoville, Johannesburg while out with four friends who identified as drag queens.

2012

In June 2012, Miss Gay Kuruman pageant winner Thapelo Makutle, who identified as both gay and transgender, was attacked in his room and his throat was slit. Later news reports indicated that Thapelo's testicles had been cut off and his penis stuffed into his mouth. Although the crime was evidently committed by more than one perpetrator, only one, Sizwe Tajini, was arrested and convicted. He was sentenced to a 14-year prison term. 

Also in June 2012, trans woman sex worker Sasha Lee Gordon was stabbed in the heart and left to die on a pavement in Wynberg, Cape Town. 

In July 2012, 28-year-old transgender woman Vuyisa 'Norizana' Dayisi was murdered in her home in Duncan Village. She suffered a blow to the forehead, and her pants were pulled down to expose her genitals.

2015

In December 2015, 30-year-old trans woman Phoebe Titus was murdered by a 15-year-old boy while she was buying ice lollies in her hometown of Wolseley. The attack took place after the teenager started verbally abusing Phoebe, shouting homophobic and transphobic slurs. After Phoebe responded by gesturing towards the youth with a plastic crate, he took a knife and stabbed her in the neck. (The perpetrator was arrested but was later released on bail.)

2018

In January 2018, 24-year-old Kagiso Ishmael Maema was murdered in Seraleng, Rustenburg. Her half-naked body was found next to a stream, and it was suspected she had been strangled and had wounds that may have been caused by an axe. 

In February 2018, the body of 30-year-old hairdresser "Rose" Papi Mogoera Elias Malebatso was discovered in Welkom. Rose was allegedly murdered when the man she was having a drink with discovered that she was a transgender woman.

In September 2018, 31-year-old Motlhatlhedi "Gustav" Modise was stabbed to death in Ventersdorp; her handbag and wallet and other belongings were left lying next to her body.

- This is an edited extract from the book Femicide in South Africa (Kwela) by Nechama Brodie.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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