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Women march on the Union Buildings protesting apartheid in Pretoria, South Africa, August 9, 1956.

Stories of South Africa’s Powerful Women Doing Extraordinary Things

From Fighting Apartheid to Demanding Equality for Women and LGBT People

Women march on the Union Buildings protesting apartheid in Pretoria, South Africa, August 9, 1956. © Jurgen Schadeberg

On August 9, 1956, 20,000 women of all races marched through the streets of Pretoria, South Africa in defiance of apartheid. They stood outside the Union Buildings, the government seat, protesting apartheid, and sang, “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” The women’s march shook South Africa at a time when women’s actions against apartheid were largely overlooked. As a reminder of women’s bravery, every August since 1995 has been Women’s Month in the country.

For South Africa’s black women in particular, the struggle for equality extended well beyond the end of apartheid in the 1990s. What does the Women’s Month mean to women who not only fought against apartheid, but for their rights as women and as lesbians? As August draws to a close, Philippa Stewart spoke to Phumi Mtetwa and Beverly Ditsie, two women at the forefront of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement in South Africa.

Phumi Mtetwa

When asked why August is important, Phumi Mtetwa doesn’t hesitate.

“History is important.”

For Mtetwa, the need to remember that day cannot be overstated: “Women are erased in their contribution to the ending of apartheid. We have to hold that history very close.”

August in South Africa should not just be about celebrating women, Mtetwa says. It needs to be about acknowledging the struggle still faced by women in the country.

“The majority of women in South Africa today are carrying the brand of inequality and what this country has gone through,” she said. “What we are faced with is how to nuance both the celebration and make visible the reality of women’s, of trans people’s, of lesbians’ lives.”

The intersectionality of this statement – highlighting LGBT rights along with the women’s rights and the anti-apartheid struggle – is a theme that runs throughout Mtetwa’s responses, and her life.

Phumi Mtetwa. © Private

She said, “I’m a black, lesbian woman from a working-class background who was raised in a township” – a poor, urban area. “I grew up holding all these identities within me, I still do.”

During her anti-apartheid activism in the late 1980s, Mtetwa, still a teenager, came out to her closest comrades, not sure what their reactions would be.

“There was also this hierarchy of struggles,” she said. “It wasn’t so important that I was a woman, that I was a lesbian. The struggle was against an apartheid government and an oppressive system, not who we were allowed to sleep with.”

Her first act of organized resistance was a rent boycott, going door-to-door and speaking to household elders, persuading them not to pay their rents on state-owned housing and continue funding apartheid – the system that oppressed them.

During this time, she lived next to a cemetery and spent countless weekends at funerals of murdered activists. Often, the graveside gatherings were broken up by police firing live ammunition, creating the bodies that would be buried the next week.

“It was a vicious cycle,” she said. “And what it told black people is that your lives are cheap.”

Coming out as a lesbian in that context was “quite something,” as Mtetwa mildly puts it. It coincided with a time when suspicion of traitors within the movement was high, and she felt the pressure to prove she wouldn’t pick one set of ideals over another.

“I think the questioning had a lot to do with where were my priorities. Would I fight against a white system of oppression against black people when I was a part of what they viewed as a white subculture [homosexuality]?”

Despite this pressure, Mtetwa kept doing the work.

In 1991, she graduated from high school and moved to Johannesburg, gaining some of the freedom of anonymity she wasn’t afforded in the township she grew up in. There she found pockets of apartheid resistance that were welcoming to the LGBT community.

In 1994, she co-founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, which fought for including “sexual orientation” in South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, and now serves as regional co-director of the feminist movement-building group Just Associates.

“For me, feminism is a vision of society, and we haven’t realized that vision,” she said.

One thread running through all of this work is her desire to eliminate the economic inequalities she sees affecting every group she works with.

“I can get married now, lesbians can get married, but what good is that if they can’t get a job? Or afford a house? Until I see a reality where there is no violence, no oppression, no hidden systems of power, I am not short of a reason to continue resistance work.”

After 32 years of activism, Mtetwa still says one of the biggest challenges is to stop people organizing in silos – splitting up identities and seeing rights for one group as distinct from rights for another. August’s Women’s Month is a chance to raise the visibility of issues faced by all women and show how they intersect.

“We speak about gender-based violence all the time in this country, but there is also an invisible violence to being a lesbian, being a trans woman, being a disabled woman,” she said.

This invisible violence includes systematic oppression – for example, the criminalization of sex work by the state – and poverty, and from not having their voices heard on all issues, not just the ones directly related to their identities.

“As a black, lesbian woman, I should have a seat at the table when the discussion is about reshaping the economy,” Mtetwa says.

Beverly Ditsie

Fifty-two years after Beverly Ditsie’s grandmother marched down the streets of Pretoria in 1956, her granddaughter took to those same streets in 2018 to demand an end to violence against women and the LGBT community. She was 47 at the time and had already been an activist for most of her life.

Ditsie sat in stubborn defiance outside the Union Buildings, waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa to come out and receive their list of demands.

“He didn’t want to come out,” Ditsie recalls, the look in her eye indicating it was a battle of wills that Ramaphosa had no chance of winning.

Two years later, Ditsie says, some of their 24 demands are “occasionally mentioned” in passing, but no real action has been taken on any of them.

This frustration in South Africa’s lost potential is also present when Ditsie talks about August and women’s month.

“At the time [the 1956 march] shook the system. It had not been done before. Thousands of women marching in the streets saying ‘enough.’”

But now, she says, that action and resistance has been replaced with speeches and surface celebrations that aren’t enough to create the change women and the LGBT community need to see.

“We are dying,” she says. Last year in August alone, 30 women were killed by their partners in South Africa.

“We actually have a very feminist constitution in this country,” Ditsie says, “but the reality doesn’t match the constitution. You want to believe that because we have an incredible constitution, those in need of constitutional protection have access to it, and that is not the reality.”

Ditsie’s activism started well before the 2018 march. As a girl growing up in apartheid-era Soweto in the 1980s, she realized she was a lesbian around age 12.

“I was so excited, I was so relieved to have a word that defined me, because if there was a word, it meant I wasn’t the only one, I wasn’t alone.”

She rushed to tell her family, overcome with happiness.

“Well, we know how that goes,” she says, wryly. Despite this setback, she also decided to come out to her best friend who lived across the street. “He didn’t really say anything at first,” recalls Ditsie. “Months later, he came to me and said, ‘me too.’”

From there, she began to find her people. A group of older queer boys from a nearby school came to visit them and they spent all their time with each other.

Ditsie speaks with joy about her time walking up and down the streets of Soweto looking as flamboyant as possible. “The point was to confuse,” she said grinning. “We loved that people couldn’t tell whether we were boys or girls.”

At 13, Ditsie didn’t know that what she was doing had a political component. As with Mtetwa’s experience, in the hierarchy of struggles, fighting the apartheid government came first. Other issues, like LGBT rights, weren’t acknowledged.

But then she met Simon Tseko Nkoli, the openly gay anti-apartheid campaigner who had faced the death penalty for treason because of his anti-apartheid work and who insisted that the LGBT struggle could not be separated from the anti-apartheid movement. Through him, she found her identity as an activist.

Ditsie’s place in the movement grew and grew. She co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand (GLOW) with Nkoli and, in 1990, at 19, and as anti-apartheid talks started in earnest, led the first Pride march in South Africa.

Gay rights were front and center in her life, but when it came to GLOW, women’s rights and the rights of lesbians seemed to be less important than other struggles.

In 1995, Beverly was invited to speak at the United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing. It was a phenomenal opportunity to be part of history on a global scale, but Nkoli told her it wasn’t part of GLOW’s mission. She went anyway and became the first openly lesbian woman to do so. It would be two years before she reconciled with Nkoli.

The highs of Ditsie’s activism seem to come with the lows and frustration as governments and leaders fail to act for women, LGBT people, or economic equality.

“Nothing trickles down to ordinary people,” she said. “We have such a long way to go.”

Ditsie remembers the euphoria of the end of apartheid, of feeling freedom for the first time only for the pendulum to swing back the other way, with lesbians, transgender people, and women dealing with daily violence. “Now you’re not sure of your safety based on your sexual orientation, based on your gender expression.”

The same happened with the Pride marches she led. Eventually, she saw the politics of Pride – the fight for equality and justice – being replaced with a party when she knew there was work still to be done, that lesbian women were being killed and assaulted at alarming rates. That trans women were dying.

To address any of these issues, Ditsie says, people have to understand that the problem exists not in isolation, but as part of the wider system of oppression.

Despite all this, she has hope.

“I love the way young people think. When I am 90, I want to be that woman, taking part in intergenerational discussions about how we fix this. That’s the thing that brings me hope.”

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