Strug­gle

If black lives mat­ter, do les­bian and trans­gen­der lives mat­ter as much as men’s? It’s a ques­tion that the #FeesMustFall move­ment has been forced to con­front. Ndileka Lu­jabe speaks with sev­eral bold young fe­male lead­ers in the stu­dent move­ment who refuse t

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In April, not far from where we are sit­ting, les­bian ac­tivist and an­thro­pol­ogy post­grad­u­ate stu­dent Then­jiwe Mswane was as­saulted by male stu­dents dur­ing a protest.

Pho­tos of her holding a sjam­bok and be­ing man­han­dled by prom­i­nent #FeesMustFall leader Chu­mani Maxwele spread rapidly on so­cial me­dia. She and other women had been grow­ing in­creas­ingly an­noyed at be­ing side­lined and left out of the loop.

“We got to that protest and it ap­peared to have been planned be­fore­hand. I was there with my girl­friend and two other friends, and we asked one of the lead­ers what the protest was about, but he didn’t want to tell us.

“We asked if queer bod­ies were al­lowed and he said no,” Mswane tells me when I meet up with her and her girl­friend the next day.

“I asked him re­peat­edly to clar­ify and he fi­nally said: ‘Peo­ple like you are not al­lowed here, go.’ That is when I be­came an­gry,” Mswane said.

So she and her friends went and bought sjam­boks in nearby Bree Street and re­turned to the protest to ad­dress the ex­clu­sion.

“We ap­proached the leader again, telling him to re­peat what he’d said ear­lier. We were hit­ting our sjam­boks on the ground.

“They ig­nored us and con­tin­ued march­ing. Chu­mani came for­ward and told us to get out the way and I re­fused, say­ing we would no longer be side­lined,” she re­counts.

She was then hit by men who were try­ing to get her to leave. Maxwele later de­nied as­sault­ing her, say­ing he was try­ing to move her to safety.

“The move­ment has al­ways been pa­tri­ar­chal, but we went in there think­ing our black­ness would unite us, and we’ll then con­sci­en­tise each other about dif­fer­ent forms of op­pres­sion,” Mswane says.

“What’s been the most vi­o­lent thing for me are the things I’ve been called. I was told that I’m re­cruit­ing for lesbianism and had a les­bian agenda. They said I was a state agent who was us­ing my sex­u­al­ity for state pur­poses, to col­lapse the move­ment.”

Mswane says she doesn’t re­gret buy­ing the sjam­bok which for her sym­bol­ises power.

“When sjam­boks are in the hands of black women who’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end of all kinds of whip­ping for years, sjam­boks rep­re­sent power and re­sis­tance.

“We got pushed to that point where we had to take back our power by any means nec­es­sary.”

Back in the cof­fee shop at Wits, Xaba, who iden­ti­fies as queer and is do­ing her master’s at the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT), says the #FeesMustFall move­ment has been a wa­ter­shed in po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism around trans­for­ma­tion and de­colonis­ing in­sti­tu­tions, but the move­ment is un­der threat of be­ing de­railed by violence in­flicted on les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der, in­ter­sex and queer (LGBTIQ) peo­ple.

“The move­ment was not in­ter­sec­tional. Queer bod­ies were ob­jec­ti­fied; they were just tick­ing boxes. What they thought was in­ter­sec­tional wasn’t what was hap­pen­ing on the ground,” she says.

Zazi Dlamini, a li­ai­son and ad­vo­cacy of­fi­cer at Gay and Les­bian Mem­ory in Ac­tion (Gala), says we need to think be­yond the mean­ing of vis­i­bil­ity and the lan­guage around in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity and what it ac­tu­ally means. “We put our bod­ies on the front line, but we have very lim­ited agency,” she says.

What is in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity?

I ask Mswane to ex­plain what in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity means to her.

“Just be­cause I am not op­pressed in a cer­tain way doesn’t mean other peo­ple aren’t op­pressed in a cer­tain way. As a per­son who’s in a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege, when some­body – whether a woman or a queer per­son – says they are be­ing op­pressed, you need to sit down and lis­ten,” she says.

“So when we con­tinue to fight [in move­ments], you know you’re not just fight­ing for your­self. It means be­ing against all forms of op­pres­sion and not just speak­ing to the op­pres­sion that op­presses you. I am not op­pressed just be­cause I’m black. I’m also op­pressed be­cause I am a woman and I’m queer. You can’t step into the space of #FeesMustFall and just be black, or be in a queer space and just be queer and not black. You’re made up of all th­ese strug­gles in one body and can’t strip your­self away from them. You’re black, queer, poor, a woman and trans si­mul­ta­ne­ously.”

The fight to ac­knowl­edge LGBTIQ strug­gles as in­ter­sec­tional and part of the broader strug­gle at Wits is no dif­fer­ent on other cam­puses. Xaba says that UCT’s #RhodesMustFall move­ment is a re­flec­tion of broader South African so­ci­ety.

“It is pa­tri­ar­chal and trans­pho­bic. Within the mix, you also then get queer peo­ple who are clas­sist; there are a lot of things at play ... Things are far from in­ter­sec­tional,” she says.

“We felt un­safe and were bla­tantly told we’d be re­moved from the move­ment if we tried to push for­ward any fem­i­nist or queer agen­das.”

But that has not stopped fem­i­nists and LGBTIQ ac­tivists, who have been at the fore­front of #FeesMustFall as or­gan­is­ers. In fact, it has em­bold­ened them. In Cape Town, trans­gen­der stu­dents have also dis­rupted the move­ment in their de­mand to be recog­nised as equal.

Bloody paint in the art gallery

Echo­ing Voices From Within was an art ex­hi­bi­tion held at the Cen­tre for African Stud­ies Gallery in Cape Town, which be­gan in March. It was billed as a mul­ti­fac­eted show re­flect­ing the #RhodesMustFall move­ment.

But mem­bers of UCT’s non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion Trans Col­lec­tive were an­gered by the ex­clu­sion of the trans­gen­der strug­gle. They dis­rupted the ex­hi­bi­tion on March 9 by smear­ing pho­to­graphs with red paint and block­ing the en­trances to the gallery with their painted, naked bod­ies. The ex­hi­bi­tion, show­cas­ing a record of events of a year of stu­dent protest, was shut down. Printed on a pink piece of pa­per plas­tered over one of the pho­to­graphs was: “We will not have our bod­ies, faces, names and voices used as bait for pub­lic ap­plause.” Another read: “#RhodesMustFall will not to­kenise our pres­ence as if they ever trea­sured us as part of their move­ment.” The Trans Col­lec­tive is an or­gan­i­sa­tion of trans­gen­der, gen­der non­con­form­ing and in­ter­sex stu­dents who played in­te­gral roles in the #RhodesMustFall move­ment. “The Trans Col­lec­tive emerged out of a void in the de­coloni­sa­tion dis­course,” said co-founder and stu­dent ac­tivist Sandile Ndelu last year. “As black trans women, we weren’t be­ing lis­tened to... so we started this safer space to raise a very par­tic­u­lar agenda.” Only three out of more than 1 000 images that ended up mak­ing it into the ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tured a trans per­son’s face. “Our role has now evolved into speak­ing back to #RhodesMustFall and keep­ing it ac­count­able to its com­mit­ment to in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity,” Ndelu added. Fel­low co-founder and for­mer chair­per­son of trans­for­ma­tion and so­cial re­spon­sive­ness on the UCT Stu­dents’ Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil, Thato Pule, said at the time that they still held de­coloni­sa­tion as the premise of the #RhodesMustFall move­ment, but they also had to de­gen­der the move­ment. “We want to give con­tent to de­coloni­sa­tion. We’re try­ing to nor­malise our ex­pe­ri­ence, and we’re us­ing our bod­ies be­cause we’ve re­alised our bod­ies are very po­lit­i­cal,” said Pule, a trans­gen­der woman. “Th­ese words [black trans­gen­der woman] de­scribe my po­lit­i­cal iden­tity and re­al­ity. All three words are a de­scrip­tion of how I need to be eman­ci­pated from struc­tural op­pres­sion‚” she wrote in an open let­ter to UCT stu­dents. Mswane says the way the #RhodesMustFall move­ment is be­ing re­mem­bered is as if the male lead­ers were the only ones who did the work. “When the move­ment gained trac­tion in Oc­to­ber last year, some peo­ple started wear­ing T-shirts dis­play­ing a po­lit­i­cal al­liance and when queer peo­ple joined in, it was made to seem as if we were try­ing to in­sert our­selves into their space, but black queer women had ac­tu­ally been at the cen­tre of that space,” Gala’s Dlamini says. “If you look at his­tor­i­cal move­ments, black women and queer bod­ies have been re­moved from the nar­ra­tive,” says Mswane. “We don’t hear enough about women and their roles in rev­o­lu­tions; it’s as if they didn’t ex­ist.”

We don’t need another hero

Over cof­fee, Dlamini ad­dresses the “hero wor­ship” at play in the move­ment which she says is dan­ger­ous “be­cause it can be used against us and com­pletely col­lapse our goals”.

Mswane adds: “Here at Wits, it’s how peo­ple ad­dress Nom­pen­dulo Mkatshwa in a way they will not ad­dress Vuyani Pambo. Vuyani isn’t called to meet­ings where he is neck­laced or talked down to.”

Dlamini says: “We need to keep show­ing up, learn­ing and un­learn­ing things, and call peo­ple out when they do wrong. Pa­tri­archs aren’t the alpha and omega of black lives. Wher­ever there is ten­sion, we need to ques­tion and dis­cuss it. That is how we open things up just a bit more.”

Dlamini is work­ing on a project with young queer peo­ple in the arts to doc­u­ment queer lives and ex­pe­ri­ences. “We plan to launch the project in Septem­ber and hope to con­front era­sure and ‘vis­i­bilise’ the lives of queer youths.”

It is through con­stantly fight­ing for recog­ni­tion that a new gen­er­a­tion of LGBTIQ lead­ers is emerg­ing. This se­ries on LGBTIQ life in Africa is made pos­si­ble through a part­ner­ship with The Other Foun­da­tion. To learn more about its work, visit theother­foun­da­tion.org

PHOTO: FELIX DLANGAMANDLA

FIGHT­ING FOR IN­CLU­SION Stu­dent ac­tivist Then­jiwe Mswane says she was as­saulted by male lead­ers dur­ing a #FeesMustFall protest. Mswane, other women and LGBTIQ ac­tivists were be­ing ex­cluded from the protest be­cause of their sex­u­al­ity

PHOTO: ASHRAF HEN­DRICKS

DIS­RUP­TION Cen­tre for African Stud­ies Gallery cu­ra­tor Paul Wein­berg ap­peals to a mem­ber of the Trans Col­lec­tive to stop de­stroy­ing art­work

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