Queer students feel unsafe in South Africa

by Luvo Mnyobe

Luvo Mnyobe Article
Photo credit: Luvo Mnyobe

The brutal, inhumane rape and murder of queer people in South Africa is an issue of concern for many Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Transgender, and Asexual people, among them student Phenyo Mokoena.

The transition from high school to university hasn’t been an easy one for the Rhodes University student. Mokoena went to the popular boys’ rugby school, Grey College, in Bloemfontein. The school experience was deeply traumatic for him. “I still carry the burden of all the emotional scarring I encountered as a result of the homophobic bullying,” he says.

Mokoena’s education tarnished his outlook on school as a conducive educational environment. He felt as though school was more of a warzone in which he had to dodge the homophobic bullets shot at him by his fellow pupils, teachers and his principal.

The bullying in high school scarred him, not because he couldn’t fight for himself but because the fighting was so exhausting. “It was draining, physically, emotionally and socially,” says Mokoena. He recalls an incident in which another student walked up to him in the public bathrooms and screamed at him, “You’re a bloody moffie!”

The mood at school, overall, was very hostile towards him.

“As a gay person at this university, our experiences are constantly being erased” says a Babalo Mesani, a queer ‘Fallist’ and student activist. The students claim that during #FeesMustFall they were forced to work together with student leaders who were homophobic, which discouraged them from taking part in protests.

The erasure is nothing new to Mokoena, however, who says that at least at Rhodes University he a visible person. He claims that outside of the university setting his queer identity is something that is completely erased. The thought of going back home during vacation makes him anxious because at home, Mokoena has to perform a sexuality that goes against his own to please his family and the rest of his community.

In the conservative community of Kwa-Zingela, Mokoena experiences the very same homophobia he experienced at school, except that here it is even more violent. He recalls how one of his friends was stabbed because he was ‘acting like a girl’.

Mokoena hated his neighbourhood because it fostered an environment that allowed for violence against queer people. He says that the people who attacked his friend were known by the community but nothing happened to them because their community approved of the violence.

Mokoena cringed every time he had to walk to the local super market because it was full of boys, standing and smoking. Among these boys were the ones who had been violent towards his friend. These boys were “real boys” – the ones his uncle encouraged him to be like. Mokoena feels that this comparison was done to shame him for being more feminine than the other boys in his neighbourhood.

The only thing that kept Mokoena going was his love for books. He says that books gave him a break from everything that happened in high school and at home. “For a while, I felt like my life had meaning and nothing could break me,” says the student.

Mesani says that although he feels safe at Rhodes University, he feels particularly anxious living in a male residence. Being around straight men makes him feel powerless, something he last felt in high school. Mokoena agrees. “Every day living in that house is a nightmare. I’m constantly waiting for someone to attack me.” This anxiety arises from his unpleasant experiences in high school and at home. The attacks on Lesbian and Gay people in South Africa further exacerbates his anxiety on campus. The murder of Noluvo Swelindawo, a 22 year old lesbian activist, continues to worry him.

Swelindawo was killed in her Khayelitsha home in 2016. “I know very well that Noluvo was murdered because she was a lesbian woman,” Luthando Mbanga, a student at Rhodes University, says.

For Mbanga, Swelindawo was more than just a member of her community. She became a beacon of hope. Swelindawo’s visibility in her community is what allowed Mbanga to live a more meaningful life. Swelindawo was part of the Sikhumbule Safe Space Group, which holds awareness campaigns, school workshops, and marches to educate the public about homosexuality, transgenderism and gender-based issues.

Swelindawo’s murder is not the only incident that affects these three students. A number of horrific killings occur in many parts of the country. The rape and murder of LBTQ people such as Nyanga’s Phumeza Nkolonzi and Thapelo Makutle of Kuruman are just some that haunt LGBTQ students in South Africa.

Even more worrying is that these incidents are not treated with the urgency they deserve. “We are being killed and no one hears our cries,” says Mokoena.

The three students no longer go out at night, after they were almost attacked at a popular Grahamstown nightclub. Mokoena and his friends were leaving the club when another student approached him and pulled him by the arm. Mokoena pulled back but the student followed him outside, screaming that this was no place for “moffies”. The student then tried to punch him. Luckily his friend pulled the student aside and begged him to leave them alone. Had it not been for this intervention, Mokoena does not know what would have happened to him.

The students believe that a lot more can be done to educate students and the public about the plight of LGBTQ people in South Africa. Schools and universities must actively take part in bringing about justice for the marginalised. Government could play a more active role in the prevention of murders such as that of Noluvo Swelindawo. They welcome the proposal of a hate crimes bill which aims to criminalise crimes such as hate speech against minority groups.

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