It’s beginning to seem that with every major pride event in South Africa comes an accompanying discussion of the country’s underlying racial fault lines. In 2012, Johannesburg Pride infamously erupted in clashes between groups who wanted to use pride as a space to advocate for local LGBTI issues, particularly misogynist and homophobic violence directed at queer black women, and those who saw Pride as an apolitical space celebrating an ostensibly larger queer ‘unity.’ Last year, Joburg Pride moved to the well-heeled Sandton district, as local community groups organized ‘Peoples Prides,’ which included a pride celebration in Soweto and a subsequent march and rally on Constitution Hill in October.
This year has been Cape Town Pride’s turn to come under increasing scrutiny. The Mother City’s Pride celebration was a ten day affair, lasting from 21 February until 1 March. This year’s theme, was the ostensibly diverse and supportive, “Uniting the Cultures of Cape Town.” However, the organization has run into considerable controversy. Funeka Soldaat, chairman of the organization Free Gender, a black lesbian organization based in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, announced that the organization would be boycotting Pride’s proceedings, instead hosting a dialogue and prayer session along with South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. Soldaat argued, in no uncertain terms, why Free Gender would not be participating in CTP. “Cape Town Pride is run by white men and they are excluding women and the black community…The festival is seen as a place to go to drink and have fun. It has become meaningless.” Soldaat argued that Pride, far from uniting the cultures of Cape Town, instead proposed that they be homogenized through a blanket wealthy, white, queer celebration in the most affluent parts of the City. Free Pride argued that a single committee should plan and coordinate Pride events throughout the many diverse neighborhoods of Cape Town, from wealthy Green Point to poorer Coloured and African communities in places like Mitchell’s Plain, Gugulethu, and Khayelitsha. Pointing to the leadership of the current Pride planning committee, Soldaat pointed out its overwhelmingly white, affluent and gay male affiliations. Soldaat and Free Gender’s rejection of current Pride celebrations calls attention to the neoliberal logics of many contemporary Prides, which reduce the performative and political aspects of the event to a mere party that merely reinforces existing race, class, and gender hierarchies in the country. To demand for increased representations of people in the larger Cape Town community challenges the presumed right of privileged white men to speak for women of color in the context of South African LGBTI issues.
Community journalist project GroundUp interviewed CTP director Matthew Van As in response to Soldaat’s comments on the organization. Van As argued that CTP was not discriminatory, and those who believed the event solely for white, affluent gay men “imposed this perception on themselves.” But the very nature of having events primarily focused on the wealthy region of Green Point, and by not having representation from poorer people, people of color, and women are genuine problems. To say that this hurts the interests of ‘unity’ proves that organizers are blinded by privilege to even see what is bound up in unity. To lead organizations that exclude the majority of queer people from leadership or organization, that continue to invest in a commercial model of queer visibility, where one’s status is celebrated if you can afford it, is hardly unity. It is hegemony instead of unity; the ability to dictate for all what queerness is and can be in post-apartheid South Africa.
When asked if CTP would consider making a public declaration in support of people like Zoliswa Nkonyana (whose rape and murder called attention the epidemic of misogynist and homophobic violence against queer township women) and Paul Semugoma (the queer Ugandan man who was granted asylum in South Africa after nearly being deported), Van As questioned whether Pride was the appropriate platform for such ‘emotionally charged issues.’ According to GroundUp, Van As then “suggested that CTP could not force the gay community to hear something that they may not be ready to hear.” But then, who is the ‘gay community’ Van As is referencing? Certainly it’s not working class black queers in townships, who bear the brunt of antigay violence in South Africa. Such a claim echoes the cries of white pride organizer Jenny Green in 2012, who shouted, “This is my route!” at the activists who demanded that violence against black women be a major part of the pride in Johannesburg. Who is being spoken for in the totalizing phrase ‘community’? And in a country like South Africa, with a lengthy history of minorities speaking for the majority in the name of ‘unity,’ how can we avoid these moments of queer silencing, where a corporate model of Pride is used to homogenize and silence those without privilege and power?
Fortunately, it does seem that populist groups are threatening to rock the boat of Pride unity. Last year’s People’s Pride march reinforced that LGBTI rights are intersectional and cannot be removed from larger histories of colonialism, capitalism, and exploitation in South Africa. The work of Free Gender and Treatment Action Campaign may also be another productive starting point. Both groups met on 1 March, the final day of Cape Town Pride, to hold a larger dialogue on homophobia throughout the continent. Grassroots movements like these, then, seem to offer potential for a queer rights movement that emphasizes intersectional struggles over a unity that privileges only a few.