Report from Yithi Laba conference by Kopano Sibeko
Photos by Lindeka Qampi & Zanele Muholi
They say two heads are better than one; I say they are only better if they are functional. Yithi Laba conference proved to be the latter; it was a meeting of great minds indeed. A bag of brains gathered at Constitution Hill for the entire weekend of 5 – 7 June 2015. The conference was a great success, a group of young lesbians, who are participants, featured in Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases 2006-2014 portrait series made up the attendee list. They gathered to share, disseminate and exchange information and skills.
It has been 39 years since the 1976 Soweto uprising and 21 years since South Africa’s emancipation from oppression and suppression of both movement and mental development. This intergenerational gathering of minds opened up a platform for these young women to get to know each other beyond their sexualities.
The Yithi Laba Conference was conceptualized by Zanele Muholi for Inkanyiso and organized by Lerato Dumse and Christie Van Zyl, to take place nine days before Youth Day on June 16, an annual commemoration of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, which fought to bring us where we are today, a generation that’s mentally liberated.
Muholi expressed why s/he imagined and felt this convention of minds would be beneficial to these young individuals. “I was 20 years old when the country got liberated, and I would’ve loved to be a part of something like this, revealed Muholi.
“I couldn’t, therefore, I don’t want to deprive these guys such an opportunity,” s/he continued. Muholi explained that sharing knowledge with queer born-frees, is essential, “we don’t need to be academic about it, but just to have an intergenerational gathering to gather information that’s all”, she said.
On the first day of the conference, attendees toured the constitutional court, following a visit to Old Fort male prison complex, known as Number Four. The Con Court tour was organized to try and understand who gets access to these spaces and what kind of cases are brought to the Constitutional Court. The youth of South Africa may have heard about the existence of the constitutional court, but a majority of them probably don’t know where it is situated and what happens there, as well as the historical significance of the place.
“I didn’t know there was a women’s prison, I just thought it was a court. Spending 25 seconds in the isolation cell was long enough, it was as if I was in a big black bin, I felt suffocated and suppressed,” said Velisa Jara, a photographer from FreeGender, in Kayelitsha Cape Town. She continues to express pain, saying, “we have freedom and we are abusing this freedom that we have.”
Nosipo Solundwana also uttered that she’s never been exposed to historical tours, but seeing the isolation cells left her in pain. “If I lived during that time, I wouldn’t have survived,” she voiced out. In deep analysis of the day’s events Sebenzile Tshabalala articulated, “When I looked at how we live today, I become embarrassed. We need to take accountability for our behavior and choose the things we partake in.” Sebenzile says she wants to inter-generate, with people that are ambitious and progressive.
The other half of the day was spent listening to guest speaker Kea Moloto-Modise, founder of Bontle-Bame. Kea shared her work and family life with the participants. She particularly touched on a very sensitive topic “FEAR”.
She forced the group to tap into a space that everyone is scared to tap into; they involuntary confronted their fears and realized their potential. Molebogeng Rhapala said, “Today I realized that if you want something, you have to go get it, you will hurt people along the way, but that’s the root to survival”. She also uttered that she realized that people are more than what they think they are. “We just need to push hard and find the potential,” she concluded.
Nosiphiwo Kulati concurred with Rhapala; she said that the first day’s events made her conscious of the fact that she is still caged, because she hasn’t exceeded her potential. “Today was an eye opener; I learned that we take our history very lightly and that we are scared of reaching our potential, I feel that we are actually more scared of failure than anything,” added Kulati.
To wrap up the day, Lesego Masilela stated that it made her feel important to be chosen for the conference. Adding that she never expected to learn so much and to discover that there are so many talented people. “I am happy that for once, we are gathered in positivity and not during picnics and things that insist on us having alcohol”.
The second day was about networking people who are in Faces and Phases. Asking the question, “Apart from being a portrait in a book, who are they?
What are they doing with their lives?”
The second day majorly had three objectives:
* Listening to each other
* To hear what each person is doing with their lives
* To share knowledge and to gather where each person wants to be, in future.
“We are not here to brag, but to boast about something positive that we’ve done individually, and also to collaborate as participants and beyond,” said Muholi. The visual activist continued to express feelings that, “we need to work, we need to earn, we need to lead better lives, we need to educate ourselves and we need to be skilled.”
The day started with everyone introducing themselves again briefly. There were guest speakers, including Rene Mathibe, who spoke about her journey as a painter. She shared about how far she’s come and how she ended up as an educator.
Sibahle, who is a filmmaker, spoke about two important factors in the lesbian community. She discussed extensively about the dangers of alcohol abuse/addiction and domestic violence. She also walked us through her journey battling personal demons and how far she’s come, overcoming them.
Fadzai Maparutsa, is a farmer and activist, who shared a vast number of things from her humble beginnings. She spoke about working within LGBTI organizations as a lesbian bodied person growing up in Zimbabwe. Talking about resolutions that are relevant and of paramount importance in and around the world.
Dean Hutton, who is a published photographer, spoke deeply about photography and lessons learned over the years. Dean spoke about personal experience about body weight, as well as self-images captured during a journey of self-acceptance, confidence and self-love.
During the second session there were four mothers who came to share their stories of raising lesbian daughters, their wishes, their fears and also to give sense of how they feel and how they deal with everything.
Linda Nonkululeko Mankazana is an educator at an all girls’ school, who spoke about her struggles in the profession. Her work challenges are increased by her support for gay rights and allowing her lesbian pupils to embrace their sexuality. Her goal is to see her pupils feel comfortable within the school environment, since they spend most of their time there. She also shared about her journey of raising a lesbian daughter, who hasn’t openly said it to her that she is a lesbian.
Mapaseka Mthunzi , “ma uwumuntu ungabi namahloni ngawe”, loosely translated as, “do not be embarrassed about who you are.” She encouraged individuals to embrace who they are, no matter what, and in so doing, be responsible for the way they carry themselves.”
Bukelwa Dumse, spoke extensively about the birth period of her daughter Lerato Dumse, focusing on her own life challenges then. She also shared a story about how Lerato came out to her and what she went through at the time. However she admitted that she still doesn’t understand homosexuality broadly, but she loves her daughter with all that she has. Her only fear is hate crime; she gets concerned every time her daughter is not around.
Fufu Mashifane touched on a variety of topics, with emphases on safety. As a mother of a lesbian daughter, she discussed how she is paranoid and gets uncomfortable every time her daughter goes out. She also added that it is saddening to have to experience people looking at your child with shame and disgust. She hopes for an integration of mothers, so they can get together and discuss these issues, because she understands how frustrating it can be, questioning yourself as a parent. Wondering whether your parenting skills had something to do with how your daughter’s turned out.
The end of the second session ended blissfully with Mally Simelane, the mother of the late Eudy Simelane. She gave advise to the mothers and to the participants. Mally highlighting the importance of support and how she has always been supportive of her daughter. She shared that she is an activist, a proud supporter of gay rights; she is part of an organization that goes to schools, churches, clinics and police stations to try and educate people about homosexuality.
She motivated the young lesbian women, and asked them to stay away from gatherings that lead to hate crimes, walking around at night and preached that, “love yourself, so that people will be able to love you,” she added.
Later on that evening, there were documentary screenings; people showcased some of the work that they have done. The participants shared some good laughs while learning and getting to know each other at Melville, where they were buddied up.
The third day of the conference felt more like a reunion as opposed to it being the last day of the conference. The participants were more accustomed to each other now, they could relate well with one another and you could literally sense the comfort from everyone.
This day gave everyone an opportunity to share at length about themselves and particularly their career paths. How they got to where they are, their obstacles, experiences, and their journeys thus far. Everyone had something to boast about, be it artistic, academic, athletic, you name it, and every participant belonged to a progressive fraternity.