by Gerald Kraak
For friendship, such an unrequited longing
(Text engraved into the marble of the Gay Monument in Amsterdam, from a poem by Jacob Israel de Haan)
This article is a contribution to a slim, but emerging body of work in gay South African historiography – the hidden, largely unacknowledged role played by gay men and lesbians in opposition politics and in the anti-apartheid and liberation movements.
Mark Gevisser, in particular, has sought to chronicle the lives of such people, initially as co-editor of the seminal Defiant Desire in which there are partial biographies of political activists, such as Zackie Achmat, Ivan Thoms and Derrick Fine, later in his film documentary The man who drove Mandela. The documentary is a biography of Cecil Williams, a member of the proscribed Communist Party and a contemporary of Mandela and others, later indicted in the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1963. Gevisser’s posthumous outing of Williams and his account of the way he straddled the spheres of anti-apartheid politics and the homosexual underworld of 1950s Johannesburg, is a history rich in contradiction. Like Williams many gay men and lesbians hid their, homosexuality not only from the authorities, but also from their comrades, for fear of marginalisation or oppression, even while committed to the liberation of others.
The experience of progressive gay men and lesbians in South Africa is not unique in this respect. The link between the agendas of the progressive political movements in the US and Europe and gay liberation over the last decade and a half belies a longer, more enduring tradition in the left. Notwithstanding some brief epochs where groups and governments, such as the early Bolsheviks, tolerated a degree of emancipation, historically the left has proved as homophobic as the right. So for example in the socialist countries of the Soviet bloc, homosexuals were persecuted, even as centre-right governments in the West decriminalised same-sex behaviour.
History, is an interpretive discipline and inevitably subjective when it involves autobiography, as this interpolation into the work of Gevisser and others, does. Like Gevisser, I am still struck with awe at the quantum leap from the antediluvian criminalisation of homosexuality under apartheid, to the full citizenship of gays and lesbians under the government of the African National Congress (ANC). The awe derives from an apparent lack of connection, the absence of a historically-explicable discourse linking the past to the present, so that the change has the quality of miracle. Returning to South Africa in 1993 after 13 years in exile I was struck not only by the contrast between the repression of homosexuality of the country I had left in 1979 and the pre-election debate on the indivisibility of human rights, but also by contradiction between my sometimes, negative experiences as a gay man in the ranks of the exiled liberation movement and the ANC’s latter-day support for an emancipatory agenda.
There’s a gap, that seeks explanation. Gevisser has tried to provide one
The primary reason why the notion of gay equality passed so smoothly into the constitution is most likely that the ANC elite has a utopian social progressive ideology, influenced largely by the social–democratic movements in the countries that supported it during its struggle: Sweden, Holland, Britain, Canada, Australia. In exile in these countries key South African leaders came to understand and accept – and in the case of women, benefit from – the sexual liberation movement. Foremost among these were Frene Ginwala, now Speaker of Parliament, Albie Sachs, now a judge on the Constitutional Court; Kader Asmal, now minister of education and Thabo Mbeki himself, South Africa’s second democratically-elected President (2000:118)
This exposition of the ANC’s encounter with homosexuality needs further interrogation. While Gevisser’s tribute to some of the more libertarian and open-minded members of the movement may be valid, he discounts two other strong ideological traditions which competed with social democracy in the ANC – those of Africanism and Stalinism, both hostile to the variants of gender politics framed by Western feminism and the proponents of gay liberation.
As a closeted political activist inside South Africa and later, as a member of the ANC in exile, there was more of a resonance and a continuum of experience in these latter traditions, than in the ANC’s late embrace of social democracy and full citizenship of gays and lesbians.
After my own, late, coming out it was something of a revelation to discover how many of my fellow activists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were gay and had led lives of partial subterfuge keeping their sexual identities secret in their political lives. It has even led me to speculate that assuming the resolutely political identities required by the style of anti-apartheid politics amounted to a sublimation of sexual identity and the deferral of coming out, that was a subtle form of internalised homophobia. Or even that the subterfuge of the political underground allowed for a parallel secret sexual life, otherwise difficult to express.
Mystic crystal revelation: The student movement and the counter-culture
I was active in the left-wing National Union of South African Students from 1975, taking up the post of National Media Officer in 1978. Many of my predecessors in the Union’s executive were gay. Yet this was never disclosed. Ironically the NUSAS of the mid-1970s aped the counter-cultural revisionism of its European contemporaries – the era of “free love”, expressed in a flowering of (heterosexual) promiscuity, long hair, flowing batiked clothing, rock festivals, cannabis use, nascent feminism and other challenges to social mores, on the campuses. The cultural wing of NUSAS was even dubbed Aquarius – after the signature tune of the musical Hair.
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
(Rado J and Radni G.1969)
Thankfully these cheesy sentiments were mitigated by a more realistic and hard-nosed leftism in the ranks of NUSAS, but neither allowed for the homosexuality celebrated in another track from Hair
Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty.
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun
Join the holy orgy
Kama Sutra Everyone!!
(Rado J and Radni G. 1969)
Homosexuality was so deeply buried in the movement that the notorious Schlebusch Commission established in 1973 to investigate the threat posed by NUSAS to the state – the Prime Minster at the time had called it a “cancer in society” to be rooted out – failed to discover or note that the NUSAS President and three of its executive members were gay men or lesbians.
The Commission highlighted – and condemned – the promiscuity of its heterosexual office bearers and the fact that they lived in communes!! These and other such moral digressions were sensationalised by the media at the time and were used as partial justification for the Calvinist government’s subsequent restrictions on NUSAS .
Neville Curtis the President was banned, later went into exile and played a prominent role in the Australian Anti-Apartheid Movement. Shiela Lapinsky, a member of the executive, also served with a banning order after the Schlebusch Commission issued its report, re-emerged as a United Democratic Front (UDF) activist in the 1980s. Another executive committee member went into exile and helped found the South African war resisters movement. Yet others, whose political involvement began with NUSAS, helped establish the nascent trade union movement or became involved in the ANC underground.
In the 1980s NUSAS abandoned the excesses of the counter culture and embraced the more sober conventions of anti-apartheid politics of the day, seeking alliances with the emergent trade union movement and black students and scholars. Yet the implicit homophobia persisted.
James Barrett a student at the University of the Witwatersrand was a founding member of the Wits Alternative Service Group, that challenged compulsory military conscription and questioned the role of the South African Defence Force(SADF) in the repression of anti-apartheid opposition.
There were about eight of us. I was the only gay man. It was quite a schizophrenic experience. I had this sense of needing to split my gay identity from my work against racism. Politically, at a gut passionate level it felt right to be involved, but the meetings, dominated by straight socially-conservative couples, were uncomfortable. (Interview with author: July 2001)
Barret’s experience mirrored those of a contemporary, Rupert Smith (a pseudonym) studying at Natal University, later a founder member of the Committee on South African War Resistance based in London.
I think my sexuality has always held me back in some ways, because of a general fear that being “out there” politically, making things happen, all opens you up to scrutiny of who you are and what you do in your spare time. (Interview with author, May 2001)
I have given this absence of a discourse about sexuality in the student movement a great deal of thought, confounded by its progressivism on every other front while failing to mirror its western contemporaries, which allowed space for the emergence of gay liberation. This lacuna bears further exploration. It could not have been the Africanist denial of homosexuality expressed more strongly in the late 1980’s by spokespeople of the liberation movements – the student movement’s links with these were tenuous and clandestine until well into the second half of the decade.
Perhaps the homophobia had two sources – the student movement’s developing embrace of Western Marxism, which in its more derivative aspects derided homosexuality as “bourgeois deviance”, inimical to a robust working class culture of hardy men supported by dutiful women.
Or perhaps it lay in that most debilitating aspect of “being gay” – the internalised homophobia of gay and lesbian student activists themselves. Their terror of discovery delayed the student movement’s coming to terms with homosexuality, in contrast, say, to the way that separatist feminists challenged the sexism of the male leadership in 1978 and forced the movement to adopt more progressive policies on gender.
And there was crucially too, the absence of a meeting point between the open expression of gay identity – in the early 1980s confined almost entirely to the white, gay male club scene – and anti-apartheid politics. James Barrett incisively captures the schizophrenia of gay anti-apartheid activists in this period.
I really struggled. I endured homophobic jokes and remarks in my political work and then went to gay clubs in Hillbrow where there was the most grotesque racism. I had a one- night stand with someone, in fact my one sexual encounter in two odd years. We finished having sex and this guy talked about what a terrible time he was having at work. He said that he was treated worse than the “kaffir girls”. It was just dismal. You had a sense that the few black men that were allowed in the clubs were only there because they were with much older white men. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Barrett’s experience reflects that of many gay and lesbian activists of the time – the sense of a life half-lived, of sublimated identity, the truncation of a discourse on the relationship between class, race and sexual oppression, that was implicit, but never realised in the notion of struggle.
The white gay community was racist. There was very little sense of a black gay community. So for white gay political activists the spheres of political and gay identities just did not come together, as they might have in a Western country. (Interview with author, July 2001).
I left South Africa in 1979 to avoid military conscription and lived in Europe for 13 years. So did Rupert Smith and James Barrett – after his flat was raided by police and other members of the Alternative Service Group were detained. Some were later charged with membership of the banned ANC and treason.
Exile proved no different. Exile politics in the United Kingdom of the 1980s was shaped by the London structures of the ANC and by the solidarity campaigns of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). In both there was again, a curious silence on the issue of homosexuality, the more marked because in British society there had been an upsurge in progressive mobilisation against the policies of the Conservative Party government of Magaret Thatcher. These included further restrictions on gay men and lesbians.
Path-breaking alliances were being struck between the conventional, socially conservative formations of the Left, such as the trade unions and gay and lesbians organisations. According to James Barrett:
Lesbians and gays were supportive of the miners strike – there was extraordinary coalition politics; gay and lesbian groups raised funds for the miners. The 1983 Gay Pride March was led by a colliery band belting out Tom Robinson’s anthem Glad to be gay. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Although the ANC and AA structures were closely allied to the Labour Party and other left-wing groups, which were at least nominally libertarian, the exile community seemed hermetically sealed against outside influences. Why was this? Was it a typical exile response, a fear of integration, the loosening of the bonds with home, a cultural regrouping around essential identities? Or did the homophobia have roots elsewhere?
We found little evidence of the exposure of “the ANC elite to a utopian social progressive ideology, influenced largely by the social–democratic movements in the countries that supported it during its struggle”, cited by Gevisser.
Rather we encountered a certain defensiveness; that in adopting or opening up to issues other than the racism of apartheid, the movement would be deflected, led astray. The notion of oppressed groups other than blacks, expressing themselves, or organising separately somehow constituted a betrayal of the imperative of national liberation.
The stronger influences here were the ANC’s – always latent – Africanism and the extreme social conservatism of Stalinism that its alliance with the South African Communist Party brought to the movement. As I have written elsewhere
[The ANC] rejected feminism as a western unAfrican concept…….feminist debate may not have been openly suppressed, but it was sublimated to the intrinsic logic of the strategy for liberation: the first struggle was for liberation of the nation; the second for the liberation of the working class, and at best third down the line might come the struggle for the liberation of women (Kraak(b),1998: 7)
The more conservative women’s sections of the liberation movement [even] held that it was the primary task of women to provide support to the front ranks of the struggle – the men – and to care for their children…. (Kraak (a), 1998:viii) …
In the pubs of London
In the many discussion with “comrades” in the ANC’s leadership and membership structures, in the pubs of London, inhibitions loosened by pints of beer, the responses were always the same, when the issue of homosexuality was raised.
Most often the subject elicited revulsion, ridicule or discomfort. More intellectually or ideologically-considered responses held that homosexuality was decadent, a bourgeois deviation of Western capitalism that would disappear under socialism. Or that while homosexuality might well occur in the white community it was alien to African culture. Where homosexual practices existed in African communities it was by contamination, or as a consequence of apartheid institutions such as the migrant hostels which broke up families and confined men in urban barracks. An explicit project of the anti-apartheid struggle was to restore the sanctity of family life.
For others still homosexuals posed a risk to the movement – they could be blackmailed or compromised by the regime and for this reason could not be trusted as comrades.
In the absence of more rigorous research what I am recounting can only be anecdotal and risks stereotyping. But there is other more compelling substantiation that these views were prevalent among the membership. The assertion of the unAfricaness of homosexuality, or of homosexuality as contamination, struck other chords. Activists from inside South Africa, passing through London at the time recounted that at least some of the victims of the notorious necklacing phenomenon of the 1980s, were homosexuals, rejected by their communities.
Gevisser in his compelling account of the inclusion of the equality clause in the constitution cites a debate on whether the ANC government ought to recognise gay partnerships that took place in the Cabinet in 1998 which confirms the homophobia abroad in the ANC even in the late 1980’s He cites Sbu Ndebele, currently the leader of the ANC in Kwa Zulu/Natal and
a former political prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, [who] declared that it was outrageous for the ANC to support homosexual activity. He reminded his comrades that anybody caught doing this on “The Island” was automatically expelled from the party.” (2000: 120)
This squares with the experiences of Indres Pillay (a pseudonym), sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island for activities in Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, in the late 1980s. One of the prisoners’ hard-won concessions was that that authorities allowed them to watch videos on weekends. After screenings of 9 ½ weeks (in which there is a brief lesbian scene) and Kiss of the Spiderwoman (an account of the relationship between straight political prisoner sharing a cell with a transvestite in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship) the leadership group on the island issued an edict that videos with gay scenes not be shown. Prisoners also had to agree to a code of conduct that disallowed anti-social behaviour. Pillay learnt to his cost that this included homosexuality. He was later ostracised by his fellow prisoners. (Luirink, 2000:38 – 9)
Gevisser also cites Dumisane Makhaye an ex-MK combatant, present at the same Cabinet meeting who is reputed to have said that MK cadres discovered to be homosexuals were shot. (2000:120)
There is nothing to suggest that such executions took place, but it resonates with a chilling encounter I had with a comrade in the late 1980s – let’s call him “Jack”.
Jack joined MK and was part of a group that smuggled arms into the country and had begun to plan acts of sabotage against military targets when they were betrayed and arrested. Jack recounted later that in the course of an operation, the group needed a car for a reconnoitring operation, that they might later abandon. Jack had a certain rugged, blonde attractiveness and the group hit upon the idea that he could pick someone up in a gay bar, go home with him, kill him and take his car. For reasons I can’t recall the operation was aborted – but the homophobia and the hostility to homosexuals as dispensable solely on account of their sexual orientation that the group’s strategy displayed was deeply alienating and accelerated my own coming-out to my political peers.
The anti-apartheid movement, an organisation of predominantly British people and rooted in the politics of the British left, seemed no more open. A prominent member of the movement recounts that
A march had been organised by the AAM to mark the Soweto uprising. I had taken part and was acutely disappointed with the turn out bearing in mind the nature of the occasion being commemorated. On the same day Gay Pride had organised a huge demonstration. It was obvious that the two events had competed for support. I was subsequently in the AAM office and stressed the importance of establishing links with the gay community. Though one person in that office agreed with me, others agreed with the ANC VIP who was there, who insisted that being gay was not a natural thing. That in any case it didn’t occur in South Africa. Somebody else suggested it was a result of the public school system in the UK. It was also pointed out that women would be the sufferers if this gayness were accepted (Interview with author, June 2001)
A poverty of debate, a dissection of identities
That was the poverty of the debate, on the issue of homosexuality in the discourse of national liberation
This placed those of us who were white, gay and anti-apartheid activists in the uncomfortable position of living a sometimes conflicting dissection of identities, racial ( in relation to our black comrades), sexual (in relation to our straight contemporaries) and political (in relation to the overwhelmingly politically-conservative communities from which we had come).
This was perhaps most vividly expressed in the internal politics of the Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) – an organisation of exiled conscientious objectors, draft dodgers and military deserters, established to undermine the SADF, by encouraging internal resistance to the draft and international isolation of the apartheid regime.
The ANC and COSAWR developed a close political relationship, the ANC included the work of COSAWR in its broader strategy to undermine the South African military. Some of the COSAWR leadership participated in the ANC’s clandestine structures exploring ways of infiltrating the military and police, broadening the campaign against conscription and undermining the morale of the white community.
An army of lovers?
At least a third of the executive membership of COSAWR were gay, as was a much larger proportion of the broader war resister community – perhaps because in addition to our moral and political objections to military service many of use feared participating in, as avowedly homophobic an institution as, the military.
For many of us who had come into exile in this way, our primary social, political and sexual relationships were with fellow war resisters. And yet even within the confines of the organisation our common homosexuality was never an explicit part of the discourse, even where our brief might have dictated otherwise – in particular the treatment of gay men in the military.
Rupert Smith, a founder member of COSAWR said that being gay in the organisation
It was possible but it wasn’t welcomed. I’ve always been pretty discrete/straight acting/fucking boring and closeted, so I wasn’t a threat cos I toed the party line. But a friend of mine who was much more out was definitely seen as being a bit…..what’s the right word? Just not quite the right image really. COSAWR was never overtly homophobic, but the liberation struggle was never really about sexual politics, not even feminist politics! Basically pretty heteronormative. (Interview with author, May 2001)
James Barrett struggled with exile:
I felt screwed up, messed up, not finding a niche to think about my gay identity. I found the general spirit in the war resister community destructive – many of the South African refugees were very depressed, living in bad conditions, really struggling with their loss of comfort. I gradually drifted away. I got involved in the London Gay Workshop, a group of gay men who got together to discuss political issues. It had a broad left-wing agenda and was trying to reach out and establish coalitions with other groups and draw gay men into political activity. This was formative for me and drew me away from anti-apartheid work and into the field of HIV/AIDS.
Ultimately I was put off the closetedness of some of the leading members of COSAWR who saw being gay as a shameful thing that might be used against COSAWR – you know, fags who were to wussy to do military service. (Interview with author, July 2001)
Terry Shott, also a founder member of COSAWR echoes Barrett’s response, but chose a different course of action. As a student in London in the mid-1970s, Shott was drawn into Okhela, a clandestine group loosely associated with the ANC, that sought to infiltrate South Africa, recruit additional members and carry out sabotage, but was quickly rounded up, making it impossible for Shott to return to South Africa.
An “out” gay man, Shott found the homophobia of the ANC and the AAM alienating and chose instead to become involved in groups which welcomed gay members – initially the Southern African Liberation Support Committee and later the Namibia Support Committee. He also helped establish the End Loans to South Africa Campaign
I chose to work in these groups. I sought out groups that I thought would be sympathetic to my sexual orientation and a broader politics that embraced gay rights, women’s rights and so on. In the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement these issues were seen as a distraction. (Interview with author, May 2002)
Shot confirms, that as in NUSAS, an insidious form of internalised homophobia prevailed – not only that our homosexuality would alienate us from our comrades in the movement, leading to our marginalisation,
but that it would somehow confirm the propaganda of the regime, that in fleeing military service we were cowards, not real men. (Shott, interviewed by author, May 2002)
Always the link with home
In the mid- to late- 1980s there was something of a cultural and politic shift. These were dictated from inside South Africa where the rise of the UDF, which although closely allied to the ANC was not characterised by the same ideological rigidity of its exiled counterpart, and allowed a broader debate.
But it was the courage and actions of Simon Nkoli that broke open the silence around homosexuality in the liberation movement. Simon Nkoli, an African gay man was a UDF activist on the East Rand near Johannesburg. He was arrested and put on trial for treason, part of a dragnet that included some the UDF’s most prominent leaders. With extraordinary personal courage, Nkoli came out to his colleagues in prison, at first inspiring opprobrium and later through sheer persistence, respect.
One of them the trailists Patrick Lekota, now the ANC National chairman and South Africa’s defence minister, speaking at Nkoli’s funeral in 2000 said that
all of us acknowledged that [Simon’s coming out] was an important learning experience …. His presence made it possible for more information to be discussed, and it broadened our vision, helping us to see that society was composed of so many people whose orientations were not the same, and that one must be able to live with it. And so when it came to writing the constitutions how could we say that men and women like Simon who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against? (Gevisser, 2000:119)
Nkoli’s actions not only challenged the notion that homosexuality was unAfrican, but demonstrated the presence of gay men and lesbians in the anti-apartheid movement. Nkoli’s arrest and trial came at a point where the scale of the uprising against apartheid and its brutal repression by the security forces had captured world-wide attention and sparked a revival of anti-apartheid solidarity in the west. Gay groups in the US and Europe took up Nkoli’s cause demanding his release and brought the issue of gay and lesbian identity into the foreground of anti-apartheid politics.
Nkoli emboldened gays and lesbians in other formations of the anti-apartheid and liberation movements, including a group of gay men in COSAWR, who launched a campaign in solidarity with imprisoned conscientious objector Ivan Thoms. Thoms was a prominent member of the End Conscription Campaign and of the Western Cape branch of the UDF. A medical doctor who tended to the victims of police brutality and shootings in the squatter camps and townships of Cape Town, he spoke with particular authority about the consequences of the state of emergency. Clandestine elements of the security forces tried to discredit him by pointing to his homosexuality in pamphlets and posters circulated in Cape Town.
Thoms, who had until then remained silent on his homosexuality in his public life, became increasingly open, pointing to the similarity of experience of oppression shared by homosexuals and black people. Thom’s coming out was a signal for the gay membership of COSAWR. When Thoms was jailed for refusing to obey his military call-up, COSAWR organised a campaign of solidarity with him, specifically profiling Thoms as a gay activist targeted at and winning support from gay groups in the UK
The Dutch connection
There were other shifts.
Bart Luirink and other openly-gay executive members of the Dutch anti-apartheid movement, were disconcerted by the absence of a discourse on homosexuality in the liberation movement and with some of their colleagues began to raise the issue with the senior leadership ANC. Some of executive members of the Dutch movement were uneasy about this stance. The Dutch movement, had very close, ties with the ANC, was one its mainstays of support in Western Europe and could not be easily discounted.
This invisible debate, a samidzat discourse, that went on behind closed doors, between senior leaders of the ANC and gays in implicitly trusted anti-apartheid movements was brought to a head in 1987, when the gay London weekly Capital Gay interviewed senior representatives of the ANC in London on the movement’s position of gays and lesbians.
The publication was responding – in part – to the assurances which had been given to a delegation of students who had sought contact with the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. This was part of the dialogue that was opening up between internal groups and the exiled movement that presaged full-blown negotiations three years later. The ANC stated that while the ANC had no policy on gay and lesbians, it was “open minded on the issue “
ANC policy grows as it confronts social questions that need to be addressed. A democratic state should restructure and accommodate issues related to oppression…. “ (Capital Gay, 18 Sept 1987)
But Solly Smith the ANC’s representative in London responded to Capital Gay’s question thus
We cannot be diverted from our struggle by these issues. We believe in the majority being equal. These people (lesbians and gays) are in the minority. The majority must rule (Capital Gay, 18 September 1987).
An executive member of the ANC, Ruth Mompati, went on to say
I cannot even begin to understand why people want gay and lesbian rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don’t see them suffering. No one is persecuting them. We haven’t heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West….. They are not doing the liberation struggle a favour by organising separately and campaigning for their rights. The (Gay) issue is being brought up to take attention away from the main struggle against apartheid…. They are red herrings. We don’t have a policy on gays and lesbians. We don’t have a policy on flower sellers either (Capital Gay, September 1987)
Mompati’s views betray the much wider thinking in the ANC at the time – that all gays were white. This says a great deal about the visibility of black gays in the liberation movement, a subject to which I will return.
What if 1990 hadn’t happened?
How far this process of discussion and opening up on the issue of sexuality in the ANC would have gone had the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s not transpired, is open to question. But the focus of debate on the future of gays and lesbians shifted to the halls of the constitutional negotiations at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park where a group of gay UDF activists pressed for the inclusion of the clause on sexual orientation in the constitution. The rest is part of a remarkable and unprecedented story which others have covered in detail.
What then to make of the role of gay men and lesbians in the liberation movement and the contradictory experience of commitment to an apparently emancipatory project that took no note of their oppression. In this their most critical endeavour, the one that is likely to have shaped them, they led half- lives.
Of course most cadres in the movement also did, sacrificing their youth, sacrificing the possibility of sustained relationships and many also their lives. Women in particular endured the suffocating patriarchy of the ANC’s exiled structures, and have been vindicated by the explosion of an indigenous feminism in post-apartheid SA. We have all gone on to claim full citizenship of a democratic country.
But for gays and lesbians specifically it might so easily have been different. Where it not for the “miracle”, for the actions of a few brave individuals who had the foresight to seize the historical moment of the negotiations, South African gay men and lesbians might endure the oppression of those in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda, where Africanism has held sway.
At the same time this has of necessity been a white history, a story about some white gay political activists. Emerging historiography has now established that the notion that homosexuality is un African is a fallacy, called into question not only by the flowering of black gay and lesbian organisation, but by the rich emergent histories of gay life in black communities. Yet we can count on the fingers of one hand the out black gay political activists in the history of the struggle. This very lack of the visibility of gay and lesbians cadres in the movement, points surely to the persistence of homophobia in the political community, which colours the memory of the struggle. What was the experience of black gays and lesbians in the formations of the liberation movement and its armed formations, in the trade unions and the affiliates of the UDF? We need to know to be able to reclaim our pasts.
This brief history of some gay men and lesbians who worked in anti-apartheid structures and in the liberation movements tries to do that. It seeks to add to the complexity of our experience. It tries to pose critical questions about how we arrived in this safe haven, so that our history is not appropriated into some bland notion of rainbow nation in which the needs of all have been accommodated and the real difficulties, pain and alienation of reaching this point are air-brushed into the rosy-hued background.
In as much as truth and reconciliation are motifs of the post-apartheid society, we need to look back and proselytise the union of the political and personal, so that the politics of the future embraces all those who seek a role. The indivisibility of the human rights of all is a standard that should never again questioned, compromised or contoured to fit ideology.
Gevisser, M. 2000: Mandela’s stepchildren: homosexual identity in post-apartheid South Africa. In Drucker,P (ed): Different rainbows. London: Gay Men’s Press
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni music by Galt MacDermot
Luirink, B. 2000: Moffies. Gay Life in Southern Africa. Johannesburg:David Phillip
Kraak,G. 1998: Class, race, nationalism and the politics of identity: a perspective from the South. In Development Update, Vol 2, No 2, 1998
Kraak G and Simpson G. 1998: The illusions of sanctuary and the weight of the past: notes on violence and gender in South Africa. In Development Update, Vol 2, No 2, 1998