2014 March 21: Part 2 A retrospective on my life and work as an activist in South Africa

Johannesburg, May 17, 2013

(Part 1 describes how I first came to South Africa and became involved in lesbian and gay activism here, namely, through my role as the J-FLAG representative to the ILGA conference hosted by Johannesburg in September 1999. The saga continues…)

Part 2

I met a number of big names at that ILGA conference: Prudence Mabele, Nomfundo Luphondwana, Thulani Mhlongo, Peter Mohlahledi, Mazibuko Jara, Carrie Shelver and Sharon Cooper, to name a few.
And I met Zanele Muholi. A smooth-talking, quick-acting “playa” who seemed to be everywhere at once, she fascinated me.
She was a diamond in the rough, yearning for more but as yet not even imagining the major force for black lesbian visibility that she was to become. Then, as now, her mind skipped from idea to idea like a child happily playing in puddles.
Two ideas that have remained constant with her, however, were the need for black lesbians to organise so that we can speak on our own behalf, develop our own capacity and resources, and claim our social and political space; and the importance of documenting our lives.

But to be honest, when I moved here to join her eight months later, activism was the furthest thing from my mind. Apart from simply experiencing myself in a different space for a while, I had two imperatives – explore the relationship with Zanele, see where it took us; and develop my career as a mediator, counsellor and trainer. These were underpinned by what continues to be the primary driver behind all my major decisions – the desire and willingness to evolve spiritually.

And so the move to SA – which involved handing over my law practice to my junior associate, selling whatever disposable property would move, and sub-letting my flat with all my cds, photos, objets d’art, books, furniture and other worldly possessions that I was not taking with – was, in essence, a giant leap of faith.

I have had to call on that faith many times in the years since. The first occasion was when I went to renew my visa three months after my arrival and was told, instead, that I had two weeks to leave. I’d come in on an exemption which was not renewable, and the clerk dealing with my case was unimpressed by my argument that the decision in NCGLE vs the Minister of Home Affairs (1999) gave me spousal immigration rights.

Luckily, an immigration consultant who just happened to be right at that counter in that moment to overhear my plight, was. He was white, gay, and eager for the opportunity to develop a speciality in such cases, and so offered to assist me for free. Although I don’t have official records to prove this, I’m convinced that we were the first black lesbian couple to take advantage of the space opened up by that decision, even before the Dept of Home Affairs had had a chance to make the necessary regulations to give effect to it.

But getting my permanent residence permit turned out to be the least of my challenges. Inasmuch as I felt that South Africa needed, and still needs, the services of skilled mediators, I could not believe how difficult it was for me to find work in that field. I found myself wondering if Zackie Achmat, the General Secretary who presided over the dissolution of NCGLE, had made good on his threat to have me blacklisted, when my report from the mediation at the conference disclosed that he was a primary target of the discontent!

In between the search for work, I kept myself busy attending workshops and doing short courses, including the Lifeline personal development and counselling skills programme, and the FAMSA Divorce Mediation and Basic Counselling Skills courses. I even volunteered at both organisations for a while.

My first paid assignment was from Pumi Yeni – representing a provincial HIV/AIDS organisation whose name I can’t quite remember – to do a workshop on Community Leadership and Project Management for a group of community workers, mostly gay, drawn from various organisations in and around KZN.
My next was to run a women’s project at Behind the Mask (BTM), then in its nascent stages. The project comprised a women’s rights workshop, and the pilot of a skills training programme for black lesbians.

Both were through Zanele’s connections – Pumi was her home girl, and she met Bart Luirink, the Dutch journalist/activist who founded BTM, at that same ILGA conference where she met me.

Zanele had a great deal of faith in me, much more than I ever had in myself, and she believed I was meant to do great things in and for the LGBTI movement/community in South Africa. She convinced me that my inability to find work in any other sector was a sign that activism was my destiny.

 (to be continued….)



About the author

DONNA A M SMITH is a poet, life coach and facilitator based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She can be contacted at powersource.smith@gmail.com

This entry was posted in Behind the Mask (BTM), Dept of Home Affairs, Know Your SA Queer History, Lessons learnt, LGBTIs in Africa, Life, Life Stories, Love and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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