by Donna A M Smith
Johannesburg, April 17, 2013
Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), the black lesbian organisation I co-founded with my former partner, Zanele Muholi, in 2002, celebrated its 10th Anniversary last year. I was asked to speak at the anniversary function, to reflect on my experience of FEW’s beginnings. One year and many pages later, that reflection has developed into a project of sorts, though not without Zanele’s urging. So I thought I’d use this space to share it with you over the next…well, FEW J months, for whatever insights it might offer.
I’ve always fancied it to be an interesting story, well worth telling, and, with Human Rights Day just past and Freedom Day coming up, now is as good a time as any to test that….
(a retrospective on my life and work as an activist in South Africa)
When I first landed in South Africa in September 1999, it felt strangely like coming home. I was here to represent the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians All-sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), and help run a workshop, at the International Lesbian & Gay Association (ILGA) conference, being hosted by Johannesburg. The organisers sent Tshidi Telekoa – then with Sistahs Kopanang, the forerunner to FEW – to meet me. I took to her instantly, and today still count her among my favourite persons in the LGBTI sector.
I was enchanted by the charm, courtesy, helpfulness and open curiosity of the people I met. Later, during the conference, I was startled by the open hostility between ethnic and gender groupings, and the felt discontent of black lesbians. This was my first inkling that, despite the ground-breaking constitutional affirmation of lesbian and gay rights, there was much work still to be done here.
This both surprised and saddened me, as the South African LGBTI movement provided such inspiration for us in J-FLAG. We studied its strategies and drew courage from its successes. In our 2001 submissions to the Joint Consultative Committee of the Jamaican parliament looking into proposed constitutional amendments, we used the South African approach as our model.
So when this hostility I sensed at the conference erupted into one incident of violence, and two bitter disputes that threatened to derail the entire proceedings, I immediately offered my services as a mediator.
One dispute was around the election of Phumi Mtetwa to the post of ILGA Africa representative. Some felt it was an elitist appointment that had been pushed through without giving the wider community an opportunity to offer any other candidate; and that she was a puppet of the men who dominated the sector, and did not, or would not, speak for most black lesbians.
Having met Phumi and heard her speak, I found this latter hard to believe. Not only was I charmed out of my pants, but I was impressed by her vision, and thought that her insights were spot-on, and her passion and courage were real.
Part of the problem was that Phumi also featured in the other dispute, because of her links with the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE), which was about to be dismantled in favour of the Lesbian & Gay Equality Project. Whereas the NCGLE was an umbrella body that provided some measure of protection and support for the smaller and weaker LGBT organisations in the country, the Equality Project was to be a stand-alone advocacy organisation responsible only to and for itself.
The smaller organisations, including Sistahs Kopanang – at the time calmly and resolutely led by YoYo – felt that there had not been enough consultation there as well, that they were being cut loose and left to fend for themselves before they had built sufficient capacity to do so, and that some of them would not survive. As the mediation progressed, it became clear to me that, at the heart of these disputes, was the issue of access to resources, with the black lesbian community having the least.
That was my first foray into LGBTI activism in South Africa. I’d been involved in activism in Jamaica since coming in to the lesbian and gay community there at age 17 and had, in the year before attending the ILGA conference, taken on the mantle of co-chairperson of J-FLAG, our sole activist organisation. But nothing I had done back home could have prepared me for the deep divisions and intense competition for resources that characterised the movement here.
(to be continued….)
NB: Previously published as HEART AND SOUL in EXIT.
DONNA A M SMITH is a poet, life coach and facilitator based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org