Voices: CELEBRATING LGBTQI ACTIVISM IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
October 8, 2019
By Claire Tunnacliffe
Claire Tunnacliffe (@C_Mali) works across supporter engagement and philanthropic partnerships with GiveOut. Her background is in urban planning, environment and sustainable development, with a focus on interventions in public spaces. She is currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the Bartlett School of Architecture in LGBTQI+ activism in London as a queer practice of placemaking.
She recently visited South Africa to attend the "kopano", a convening of LGBTQI groups from across southern Africa organised by The Other Foundation, and the inaugural Advocacy Week, led by Access Chapter 2. Both groups are supported under the Emerald 50 Fund with GiveOut, generously sponsored by Steve Wardlaw and his insurance company Emerald Life.
The Kopano: “I am because we are”
I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on the morning of Tuesday 17 September 2019 to attend the biennial “kopano” (from the Sotho language, meaning a gathering to address an important issue), organised by The Other Foundation, an African trust that works to advance equality and freedom in southern Africa with a particular focus on sexual orientation and gender identity.
GiveOut has been a proud supporter of The Other Foundation since we launched last year and this year we will be supporting the organisation through the Emerald 50 Fund.
This year’s kopano was on the theme of expanding space for LGBTQI activism, and collectively exploring strategies for LGBTQI struggles in southern Africa. Across four days, it brought together over 200 participants from 19 different African countries as well as international allies, at Maropeng – the Cradle of Humankind, an amazing exhibition venue, focusing on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years. The choice of location was by no means a coincidence, with The Other Foundation wanting to reach deep into our collective histories.
During the first day, Neville Gabriel, CEO at The Other Foundation, explained that this year's theme was chosen for several reasons. Since the last kopano, there has been real progress for LGBTQI human rights in many countries in southern Africa, and they wanted to recognise the strength of activism and progress in the region in a very short time.
Additionally, in that time there has been an exponential growth in LGBTQI groups in the region, reflecting different forms of activism, a growth of organising across business, mass media, development organisations, religion, and the legal sector. However, growth is uneven between different countries and within the LGBTQI community itself (for example, there are fewer intersex, trans and lesbian groups). With this increase in strength, it is felt that the movement is reaching a critical moment - what feels like a tipping point of irreversible change. The purpose of the kopano therefore, was to explore together opportunities, renew strategies, activities, and messages to deepen influence.
Across the few days, panels and breakaway groups spoke to the themes of: African LGBTQI histories; the role of SADC (South African Development Community) and the political will to advance; communicating strategically to win public understanding; the evolution of progressive politics in southern Africa and political participation; integrating into educational curricula; cultivating allies and the value; opportunities and risks of working with allies; equality, safety and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and integrating LGBTQI equality and freedom in national, regional, and global development agendas.
The kopano particularly spoke to different ways of expanding the frameworks through which we think through LGBTQI activism, questioning the parameters of the SDGs, human rights and feminism, which provide singular perspectives – instead, we need to apply multiple, different frameworks.
Dr Fikile Vilakazi opened day two with an in-depth exploration of the history of sexuality in Africa pre-colonialism, and how colonialisation violated the different ways Africans had of loving each other and instead framed it as ‘barbaric’ and ‘backwards’. Dr Vilakazi spoke passionately about the importance of challenging the positioning of colonisation and African sexuality. She suggested that what is lacking from LGBTQI activism in (southern) Africa is it being positioned within a framework of de-colonisation. What would a de-colonial framework look like in addition to other frameworks? A suggested framework which returned again and again in conversations through the kopano, is the Nguni Bantu term ‘ubuntu’, meaning ‘I am because we are’, an integral thread to the expanding space conversation. The concept of ubuntu demands that resources, passions, drive and ability to commune are shared. Community is an integral part of the kopano, but also a source of tension: conversations revolved around what does it mean, who’s voices were being erased and who wasn’t in the room.
As much as it was about panel discussions, the kopano was also about the tea breaks, the breakaways, evening drinks, and moments to be together. I found myself reflecting on how the presence of queer bodies often renders a space queer, and how in that moment, the kopano wasn’t just a gathering but a moment in history. At the end of the event, as the hotel emptied and I left on Saturday, I felt a wave of gentle grief at the loss of such a beautiful queer time and place.
Advocacy Week: a new generation of LGBTQI activists
Following the kopano, in the week of 23 September, I joined the opening days of Access Chapter 2’s inaugural Advocacy Week. The week was also supported by GiveOut through the Emerald 50 Fund.
At the helm of Advocacy Week was Access Chapter 2’s Executive Director Steve Letsike, an activist, feminist, leader, mentor, and human rights advocate. Access Chapter 2's vision and mission is built from a women and LGBTQI centred approach, and seeks to ensure civil society’s substantive participation in civil, political and socio-economic rights as enshrined in the bill of rights. Hence the organisation’s name: the bill of rights is found at Chapter 2 of South Africa’s Constitution.
The event began with a wonderfully intimate welcome, listening to the inspiring Dr Bev Ditsie talk about her 30 years of activism. Bev is a lesbian activist and filmmaker, and one of the founders of the gay rights organisation, Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand. In 1995, Ditsie made a statement at the Beijing Women’s Conference about the importance of including lesbian rights in discussions about the empowerment and upliftment of women. She was the first openly lesbian woman to do so and it was the first time that the United Nations was addressed about considering the realities of LGBTQI people in the protection of human rights.
Building on the OutRight Action International model for Advocacy Week, this inaugural event ran for five days and brought together LGBTQI activists from across South Africa, with workshops, training sessions and meetings with relevant government stakeholders, international agencies, influencers, and media.
The week sought to bring together activists to create platforms for networking, information and knowledge sharing, and experiences; to build the capacity of LGBTQI activists through high level engagement with stakeholders in the fields of law, social and political science, creative arts, psychology, economics, and healthcare; and to enhance networks and create solidarity in the implementation of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Following from this first Advocacy Week, it is hoped that the model can be taken to a regional level in 2020.
Leaving the Access Chapter 2 office on day two for my flight home, I was sad not to be able to join for the rest of the week’s activities. But as the group set off for their meetings, we hugged and promised to speak soon, and they headed off to do what the week was all about – develop connections and platforms to bring in a new generation of activists and forms of activism.
A huge thank you to everyone from The Other Foundation, in particular Neville Gabriel, Xhanti Payi and Bella Matambanadzo, and to Steve Letsike, Macmillan Ngobeni and Patrick Mthombeni from Access Chapter 2 for their very warm welcome.
And many thanks to Steve Wardlaw, Ian Martin, Heidi McCormack and all at Emerald Life, and the many supporters of the Emerald 50 Fund with GiveOut, whose generous support is enabling The Other Foundation and Access Chapter 2 to make a real difference to LGBTQI communities across southern Africa.
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