A journey of research on Black lesbians in South Africa and finding hope
by Bridget Ngcobo
In January of 2012 I ventured to Katlehong, a township in Johannesburg to conduct ethnographic research on Black South African lesbian activism, with grassroots organization Ihawu. With the guidance and tutelage of visual activist Zanele Muholi and academic Zethu Matebeni I embarked on a journey that changed my life. I suppose there are few ways to express the sentiment of having ones life changed without at first sounding dramatic, but the Black lesbians I met while conducting my research are unveiling the possibility of paradigm shifts and thus changed my life.
When I first set out to do this research on Black lesbians in South Africa, being based at an American tertiary institution, unaware of the activism. I was entirely focused on the violence being meted out on Black lesbian bodies.
Having read of disturbing cases of ‘corrective rape’ and other forms of torture being suffered by Black lesbians in South African townships, all I wanted to do was expose the violence. But instead, I ended up being called instead to write of the vitality of Black lesbian activism.
Writing about one’s own identity through an Academic lens is always complicated work. At the time of conducting my research, I was looking to understand myself. Having spent my formative years of academic awakening in the United States, I wanted to come back to South Africa with words to describe what and how my consciousness was formed.
Sitting in the ivory tower, all I had ever known was that Black lesbians were seen as social pariahs and cultural dissidents despite having enumerated rights in South Africa’s constitution, hence my limited focus.
I have to explain where I was coming from, not to exonerate myself from the guilt of indulging in the sensationalist nature of exposing violence, but rather to explain that the consumption of Black South African lesbians can be another form of violence.
My journey with Muholi started at a Human Rights Watch presentation of , We’ll Show You You‘re a Woman,” on violence and discrimination experienced by Black lesbians in South African townships. After the presentation I went to lunch in Woodstock, Cape Town with Muholi and Matebeni. The mood was set by the South Africa’s summer sun and the vibrant colors one is bound to see on Woodstock’s streets close to trendy galleries and eateries.
Before eating together Muholi made a stop at the Michael Stevenson Gallery to check in on her Exhibition. Sitting at Kitchen alone with Matebeni for a while I dissolved into a panicked tirade on working my frustration with reaching a cohesive research question. She listened patiently, after I finished she asked me, why I was not interested in writing about the joy of lesbian sexuality or lesbian pleasure. It was a simple question that set the stage for a research project that changed my sense of self. After Muholi returned, both her and Matebeni exchanged the most delicious stories of Black lesbian lives and vitality. This made me realize that what Matebeni was saying, is that violence against Black lesbians is only a small component of a much larger picture regarding Black lesbian consciousness in South Africa.
A few days later, I followed Muholi to Johannesburg and ended up conducting a group interview in Katlehong with members of Ihawu. After the interview I helped Muholi with taking photographs of the ladies and experiencing both their faces and lives bought to life the personification of resilience. The seed planted by Matebeni grew into what became the focus of my research.
The members of Ihawu spoke passionately of their plans to confront homophobia in the township, speaking of efforts to make safe sex kits available for gay and lesbian South African’s in their local clinic. They skillfully articulated how they planned on growing networks to expand employment opportunities both within Ihawu and beyond. I knew after this visit that not writing about their activism and resilience would be as criminal as the violence inflicted on Black lesbian bodies in township spaces.
It is important to acknowledge, confront and write about corrective rape and other instances of torture and violence against Black lesbians, but it is also important to realize that is only half the story.
Muholi’s 2006, photographic portrayal of violent discrimination faced by black lesbians in South Africa, is thus aptly named,“Only Half the Picture.”
Black lesbians lives and activism reveal an agency centered on Blackness and femininity that is cannot be mistaken. Thus engaging with power in a way that forced me to look introspectively at my own latent possibility as an agent of change in post-apartheid South Africa.
A year after the completion of my thesis “Your Silence Will Not Protect You: (Re) presenting Resilience – The Black South African Lesbian; Activism and the Individual.”
I went to the Yancey Richardson Art Gallery, in Chelsea, New York to see Muholi’s Faces and Phases exhibition.
I walked into the gallery wide eyed, brimming with emotions, nostalgic for the strength and courage home. At this point I was working at a corporate law firm, young, drained and desperate for a reminder of my own capacity to affect change in my own country. When I stepped into the gallery I found what I was looking for.
One of the most striking aspects of Muholi’s piercing black and white portraits of Black lesbians presented through the Faces and Phases project is that it calls for introspection. You can see your own reflection in the eyes of the women that Muholi dares you to engage with.
The frames and glass do not act as barrier, but instead facilitate you seeing yourself in their eyes of Black lesbians.
This introspection dares you to ask what role you play in the lives of Black lesbians in South Africa. Even if your role, like mine, is to stand quietly in a gallery in New York, and ask difficult questions of post-apartheid South Africa:
like what does it mean to be Black?
And what does it mean to be lesbian in a place that condemns you for loving who you love?
And finally what does it mean to (re)define the terms of your agency despite your circumstance?
The research I conducted in South Africa on Black lesbian activism changed my life and continues to do so today, begging me to ask more questions, (re)visit the parameters of my own agency and propels me (re)present the agency of Black lesbians in South Africa.
About the author
Bridget Ngcobo is a Black South African poet.
She is an adventurous spirit born in Pietermaritzburg, educated in Massachusetts and constantly finding strength in the lives of those around her. The eyes and the stories of others remind her always, that Marianne Williamson must have been right when she said, “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”