Activism in Isolation

2013-09-02 10:38

In April I attended the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian (LGBTQI themed) film festival in Cape Town. I attended the screening with members of the LGBTQI society from the University of the Western Cape and was particularly struck by a film called “Two Stories”. This is a local documentary, very short (just 12 minutes), yet within the opening frames, I was in shock. The Out in Africa film festival is the only one of its kind in South Africa. It has been around for 20 years and has had screenings all over South Africa, from big cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, to smaller places and also in Namibia and Botswana. They have had, at last count, 3, 266 screenings with 1, 046 films (with 112 South African films). The festival has been in financial difficulty lately, with every festival urging attendees to donate what they can, and also spread the word about the festival. With some good news, the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) has donated R5,999,756 for a feature film that will be produced by Out in Africa. This film was about the township in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa where, like other townships in the country, black lesbians are being brutally raped and killed. The story by one of the survivors was so striking because, like she said, being raped will NOT change her. This determination seemed almost stupid, and made me feel ashamed for how strong these women are in the face of such extreme adversity.

The men in this township who were interviewed had the audience fuming. They were filmed speaking about their hatred of homosexuality. They believe that it is an abomination, that the government should send “them” out of the country, to Robben Island or kill them. These men (“men”?) were so incensed by their hatred; they could not even see the flaws in it.

The following day, two friends of mine, a black lesbian and a queer black male, attended the Cape Town Pride Annual General Meeting, to discuss the future of CT Pride. This is a meeting to affirm the achievements of the last year, and also to plan the way forward. This meeting, as I was told, was filled with white, gay males. There would be nothing wrong with this statement ordinarily; however, there were very few other demographics represented.

What this observation highlighted was the division not only within the LGBTQI community, but also the divisions within activism as a whole.

I consider myself an activist. I also think that there are too many “unconscious” activists around today. These are idealistic individuals who attend a march, or meeting, for the latest cause, and that is where it ends. I could include myself in this group at the best of times, however, I am trying to constantly educate and enlighten myself.  People assume that because you campaign and fight for a cause, that that’s where it should end, however I disagree. This is where “activism in isolation” comes in.

The problems with CT Pride this year was the fact that there was, as in previous years, another short march and then the participants were confined to the caged-in De Waterkant village in Greenpoint. This area is known as the gay-friendly area of Cape Town in which many LGBTQI clubs are housed, and events are held. But to those who cared to crane their necks over to across the road would have seen a whole lotta black people, drinking outside. This is the South African (and particularly Cape Town) condition, where a single division, like a road, can separate two classes of people. The idea of two people being unequal because of socioeconomic reasons should, in itself, be archaic and antiquated, however it still exists.

The problem is the idea of pride. How do we celebrate it for one portion of a community only? We have black pride, yet there is only a small section of the black population with a fair income and living conditions.

I've heard many people say that they do not like the idea of a gay Pride march, because it has lost all meaning and become nothing but a big party. I would have no problem with just a big party; however, we have such a long way to go before we get to this point. How do we celebrate and dance around when there are people still being killed for being who they are? [This is the part I often struggle understanding. How do black people, condemned by a racist government for being who they are, condemn others for… being who they are?]

Overseas, Pride has become a huge party and massive money spinner. This would be passable in South Africa, except that these other countries do not have our unique situation and context to consider. I do not hear many stories of “corrective” rape in townships in America, Australia or Europe.

This does, however, bring me back to that short film and activism in isolation. South Africa, I do believe, will always have these divisions and problems if we always focus on one area, and not the other.

I was recently struck by a South African non-profit organisation known as Embracing Dignity. The work that they do is incredible. One of their initiatives includes a Dignity Marketplace at the District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town, in which the “Sisters” (as the participants are called), get the opportunity to sell arts and crafts products which they make. This is an initiative which empowers women who are survivors of prostitution and sex crimes.

Another project by this organisation enables women with skills to tell their stories, and teach leadership is the photo project in which women from the establishment of Masiphakameni (‘Stand Up’), a peer support group for prostituted women seeking exit are trained to use cameras.

What I saw was work that was outstanding, especially considering that these women were not professional photographers. They told their own stories with the use of cameras, and what was evident was the pain in their lives being projected through the lens of the cameras. I noted many shots framed through broken chairs, and pipes, highlighting the encroaching feelings of being a marginalised community in a township of South Africa.

Why organisations such as these (amongst many others) are not more widely supported, funded and ultimately a lot more visible, is beyond my understanding.

What I am suggesting is that people consider more than just their own cause. We cannot fight for education and expect people to study while hungry. We cannot expect people to find work when they do not have a decent house. We cannot demand that people stop stealing when they do not have employment.

There are too many issues to solely focus on what appeals to you. Of course I am not suggesting that people fight for every single cause out there; that is impossible. You would wear yourself out and no one would win the good fight. But these men in the townships have been disenfranchised and are not even aware of how humiliated they have been.

They have endured racial oppression which lingers to this day in many forms, and are often without education or work. They feel threatened and seem to need to lash out at a scapegoat to reclaim their power. Gays and lesbians seem to threaten the very idea of manhood with which they simply cannot contend. How do we expect a man, living in a shack and who cannot provide for his family, to be a smart and open-minded individual? This is virtually impossible. Let’s not be naïve about the cesspools of intolerance created by poverty, and when we campaign for dignity and rights for some, forget that there are other causes which feed into that cause.

The main words, and ideas, missing from activism are dignity and respect. If we can embrace and respect all people, and fight for dignity for all, then we have already begun to win the fight for equality.

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