A Dangerous (LGBTI) Visibility

On Friday, 15th June 2012, hundreds of family and friends gathered together at St. Mary's Anglican Church, Kuruman, to mourn the death of their son and comrade, Thapelo Makhutle. In Kuruman, where Thapelo was murdered, there was a protest and a memorial service attended by about 100 people. The next day, Saturday 16th June 2012, some 500 people attended the funeral at his ancestral village of Bendel, some 50 kilometers from Kuruman.

Kuruman is located in the far north of Northern Cape Province, not too far from the South African border with Botswana. It is 250 kilometers from the diamond mining town of Kimberly. Kuruman with a population of 12,700, is an under resourced rural town with a small but visible LGBTIQ family. Kuruman lies at an historical crossroads both in the context of Apartheid and the growing evangelical Christian movement. The town was one of the first missions in Southern Africa [South Africa and what is now Botswana]. In 1816, the Kuruman Mission was established by the London Missionary Society. In 1820, the missionary Robert Moffat arrived in Kuruman and later moved to Seodin, which is now the township where Thapelo was murdered. His daughter Mary was married to another historical figure, the missionary, David Livingstone.[1] Robert Moffat stayed for 50 years during which he translated the bible into the Setswana language. Now the majority of people in the region are Christians. Thus Kuruman, is the sight of entry of the bible which is one of the main instruments driving homophobia. Christianity, one of the colonial relics which has travelled two hundred years in time to become even more colonial than colonial. There is a growing Christian evangelical movement in South Africa, which alongside the Traditional Courts has been calling for the protection of LGBTIQ people to be removed from the Constitution. Kuruman lies about 100 miles to the north of the Afrikaner town, Orania set up in 1990, by a group of 40 families including the son-in-law of the architect of Apartheid, Dr H.F Verwoerd [2]. The town was purchased for US$200,000 on private land where only white people of Afrikaner descent are permitted to live and work. Orania, now home to 1000 Afrikaners, is built around notions of an indigenous whiteness, nationalism, religion and white supremacy. It is in this space that one of the most brutal homophobic hate crimes of the country occurred.

Thapelo was murdered in the early hours of the 9th June. His was the second homophobic hate crime in South Africa in just one week - Neil Daniels, 36, was found burned and mutilated on Monday 4th June 2012, in Milnerton in the Western Cape. Nor was Thapelo's murder the first in the Kuruman area. By the 9th July 2012, the total number of murders in that four week period would reach 6 with possibly another 4 suspected - hate crimes.

Phumeza Nkolonzi, - Sasha Lee Gordon, - Sana Supa, - Hendrieeta Thapelo Morifi, - Neil Daniels, - Thapelo Makhutle.[3]

Only last September, Phumeza had attended the funeral of another murdered lesbian sister, Nontsikelelo Tyatyeka whose decomposed body was found in a rubbish bin near her home in Nyanga. As in many murder cases, the murderer was known to the victim and the community. Many of the victims bodies are mutilated, significantly, their genitals were either cut off or burnt; others were shot in their homes or as in the case of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa in July 2007, tied up, raped and left for dead.[4]

On the 25th June a man was arrested in connection with Thapelo’s murder and a second man was arrested on the 5th July. However communities have lost all confidence in the police who themselves are often guilty of torture and murder. [5] Human Rights Watch recently reported that:

“Virtually all of those interviewed who tried to report physical or sexual violence to the police faced ridicule, harassment, and secondary victimization by police personnel.”[6]

Every life counts

According to the press statement by LEGBO NORTHERN CAPE (LGBTI SECTOR), a young lesbian was murdered earlier this year in Magojaneng village, also in the Northern Province. We do not have the name of the young woman and this is a disturbing fact. Murders of lesbians are reported by alternative media and activists but as long as they are nameless they remain a statistic and invisible. So, one of the first things that needs to be done here, is to publish the names of the murdered along with details of the crime and the subsequent investigation or lack thereof. This way everyone can be remembered in an appropriate manner and not remain a piece of data lost in the Northern Cape or elsewhere, which is almost like a second death. We need to speak out as EVERY life counts irrespective of the person's self-identification or where the crime took place.

In the days leading up to Thapelo’s funeral and immediately after, I interviewed photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi [ZM] who along with Funeka Soldaat of Free Gender [7] and filmmaker and editor, Justin Davy traveled to Kuruman, for the memorial service and funeral. Sections of that interview are included in this article. The three left Cape Town at 5am Thursday morning to Kimberly. Due to the lack of transport in the city, they had to arrange for someone to drive from Kuruman to pick them up - a round trip of over 500 kilometers. They arrived in Kuruman around midday on Thursday 14th June 2012.

The crime scene

There have been many news and personal reports on the crime. As expected there are variations and contradictions. These are the things we would expect the police to investigate and sift truth from fiction. Thapelo was found by a friend in the room he rented at Seodin, lying on the floor under a blanket with his throat slit and his genitals removed. It was at the mortuary they found his tongue cut out and his testicles stuffed into his mouth. On Saturday afternoon, 16th June 2012, hardly a week after the murder the crime scene was unprotected meaning that people were able to move in and out of the room without knowing what damage to evidence all this was doing. According to those who visited the scene that afternoon, they do not believe that Thapelo was killed in his room as thinking about how he was mutilated the blood would have been all over the room and stained the pink walls. It is a mystery that the walls dividing the rooms are shallow but the neighbours in the next room and beyond said they heard only voices talking but no screams or shouting. Nothing that would indicate the level of brutality that took place that early morning. How could one person have done this thing.

[ZM] "I have been to a lot of crime scenes and you know when you enter the place you get shivers, like goose bumps and we studied the place and I wonder if the police were really thorough! This is a painful and complicated case and somebody out there will have to speak out. They cannot deal with it, its too painful!

Also since Kuruman and the nearby places are rural, most of the area is under resourced and lets say traditional spaces, it is quite possible that other unreported hate crimes against lesbians and gay men have taken place. These crimes might have been perceived as minor until we got to know of Thapelo Makhutle's killing- so this is something we must now investigate to get a proper picture of this place.

Speaking as a human being now before anything else, the perpetrators and victims are born by mothers and fathers and I think the issue of hate crimes now needs parental intervention. Speaking for myself as I don’t want to speak for others - these hate crimes are beyond the powers of the LGBTI communities."

June 16th

There are historical connections which can be made between times and spaces of celebration and remembrance and times of hate crimes and pain. June 16th is a time claimed by South Africans as a time to remember the struggles of Apartheid and specifically the Soweto Uprising of 1976. What does it mean that these deaths and funerals take place at a time when South Africa is supposed to be remembering past struggles for freedom?

[ZM] "If I had stayed in Cape Town I would have wasted my time to celebrate this June 16. The saddest thing is that during this week, we find ourselves standing at the cemetery bearing the coffin of a young gay man of 24 years old due to a hate crime".
In April 2011, Noxolo Nogwaza from KwaThema, Springs was brutally killed in Tsakane. She left behind two young children. A year later, her killers are still at large. Eudy was also killed in April 2008, the anniversary month of the first free post Apartheid elections. I try to juxtapose these two deaths and when they happened. Is this how we are supposed to remember these special or supposedly special days?

Busi who also survived a hate crime was buried during March 2007 - March is supposed to be human rights month. So these young people who are barely in their 30s are being killed and the question is who will be the next and will it happen before the mothers and the fathers of the perpetrators speak?"

The protest and memorial took place on Friday 15th 2012

[ZM] "In the evening we returned to the B&B and tried to process everything that had taken place because we really wanted to know what exactly happened. I felt I needed to return to the crime scene because it forms part of my QueerCide documentary work. This story has been written, so many versions in the newspaper but I wanted to find out from those at the crime scene - what did they see, what did they do. It is then that you realise the need for media advocacy workshops so people know how to report and who to report these matters to, there in Kuruman and other places. We need to teach these things especially as the police are not doing much and do they even have the resources in places like Kuruman and the villages! Photos and video footage at the time of discovery for example may have helped the police and at least let the world know what happened here. People cannot just be gay there’s a need to learn how to document with video, cell phone or whatever."

The memorial and funeral service

The murdered are visible people but it is a visibility from within a glass closet. Seen but not recognised as free persons with the same rights written into a Constitution that is lauded throughout the world. It is ironic that the world became outraged when in nearby Uganda an Anti-Homosexuality Bill which included the death sentence was tabled before parliament. Yet it is in South Africa where LGBTI persons are being murdered. Here there is silence. Silence from the government, silence from the women’s movement and religious institutions.

[ZM] "Thapelo was open, he was open and visible. He had a supportive family and lived within a supportive structure. The chief spoke at the funeral and there was nothing homophobic at the funeral. Queer, gay and lesbian and trans people were open and all treated very well by the family and everyone who was there. LGBTI individuals were even called forward, if someone wanted to speak they spoke, they were given a chance. It was not hidden. We were safe and the family knew who their son was, not because of his death but as he lived. Positive words were spoken about Thapelo and he was presented and thought of with love from everyone who attended."

Time of the mothers!

These crimes have gone beyond theorising - hate crimes, curative rape might be theoretical terms to those who do not speak the language. Now we have to look to the mothers before anyone else. And we are all mothers - it is not only those who have physically given birth who are mothers, as Zanele points out

[ZM] "As Thapelo, [24] he would have been a child I gave birth to at high school. I would have lost my child" - it is mothers of victims and survivors, of perpetrators who have to speak to each other. We (lesbian, women, girl child) cannot always be afraid to talk with men. We cannot always be afraid to express ourselves even at funerals. I don’t know why we keep on having to talk about these things as theories and rely on reports from the government and NGOs when the problem that is decaying our community takes place within and in front of us - it is too painful."

And now what happens

The way we speak about these acts of violence - rapes, verbal abuse, murder, mutilation has to change. The terms hate crime / curative rape are theoretical and legal terms which is fine in those theoretical and legal spaces. But people at ground level need to engage in intimate conversations where they speak words that no one really wants to speak or has dared to speak in the past. Each of us, those intimately entwined with the communities where violence takes place and those of us at various places outside, all have to take responsibility for teaching, informing and learning. There are strong arguments for legislating homophobic murders as ‘hate crimes. By designating a crime or element of a crime as hate related, the courts and by implication the wider society would be able interrogate the basis of hate. “Hate crime’ legislation would also enable organisations like The Hate Crimes Working Group (HCWG) to gather proper statistical information which could then be used for advocacy and to pressurise the government to taking action.

Nonetheless, legislation alone is not a solution. For this we need to think deep and find different ways to tell these stories as writers, visual artists, performers. How can we find a way to bring each one of at least 30 murdered back to life. And for each of the 30 people we should add their families and friends also as victims and survivors because only then will we fully grasp the magnitude of the QueerCide which is taking place in South Africa.

It seems to me that these murders have their own particular meaning in relation to other crimes in that they are communal crimes - in most cases the murderers and rapists are known to the victims and survivors and possibly others in the neighbourhood. This is an important point when thinking about how to speak of these things. In order to kill so intimately surely one must find a way to disconnect. One possible way to do this is to disassociate yourself with the victim, to render them as other - we know enough about killing to know it is always easier to kill them rather than kill ourselves. If this is the case, then there are neighbourhoods of people who are disconnected from each other. Places where people look at others but do not see themselves - as Zanele asks in her installation “What Don’t You See When You Look At Me” [8] Clearly some people do not see themselves and it is here that the connection or reconnection needs to take place. I believe this is a starting point for moving beyond the question “What DO YOU see when you look at me.....?”

Written in collaboration and with special thanks to Zanele Muholi and in memory of all the victims and survivors of homophobic hate crimes.

1] African Heritage Travel & History. Robert Moffat (link)

2] Vry Afrikaner “Orania in a Nutshell” (link)

3] Glenda Muzenda “The Silence is Deafening, Crippling and Deadly! (link)

4] “A Time of Hurt - lesbians raped, tortured and murdered” - Black Looks (link)

5] “Dewani murder case: How grieving husband became suspect” - The Guardian (link)

6] Richard Pithouse “Can Zuma’s ‘Second Transition’ Take Us off the Boil?” (link)

7] FreeGender - a Black Lesbian organisation based in Khayelitsha township, Cape Town (link)

8] Zanele Muholi ”What don’t you see when you look at me” - Black Looks (link)

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Sokari Ekine (Johannesburg:SOUTH AFRICA)

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