After six years of delays: 14 years in jail for murder of Zoliswa PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 02 May 2012 09:40

Four men convicted of the 2006 killing of lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana were on February 1 sentenced to 18 years in prison (of which four years suspended) – after six years of delays and legal bungling. Zoliswa was beaten, stabbed and stoned to death by a mob of around 20 men just metres from her home in Khayelitsha’s E-section in February 2006. She had just left a shebeen after being harassed when she wanted to use the ladies toilet. She was 19 years old. For the first time in South Africa, the judgment made clear that she was targeted because she was living openly as a lesbian. While this is a victory to be celebrated, hate crimes remain a daily death threat to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed (LGBTI) people as part of the virtual civil war of gender-based violence. Izwi labasebenzi spoke to Phindi Malaza from Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) about the outcome of Zoliswa’s case, hate crimes and the struggle against homophobia:

How do you see the judgment in Zoliswa’s murder trial?

Personally I’m happy with the judgment. For one, when you look at most hate crimes, most are not looked at as such. So this is an amazing precedent, that they recognised that, and just the fact that they got arrested… Personally I would have liked them to give them more years. Fourteen years is not a long time. Of course a long sentence would also not bring back Zoliswa. But it would give the significance. And I also think it would have signaled that just because you are young [the murderers were in their late teens at the time] it doesn’t mean you can go and kill a person. Most of these crimes against gay people are committed by young people. I get some relief in that the judgment mentions homophobia. This has not been done before.

In 2008 a guy got 31 years for a murder [of Eudy Simelane], but there was no recording of homophobia as the motive. It was very clear that it was about hate, because Eudy was living openly as a lesbian, she was a well-known soccer player. She was raped and murdered very brutally. While this guy was convicted, there was a group of them, and some of these guys walk free. Free to do it again.

Last year, another woman was raped and murdered in the same place…?

Not in exactly the same place, but it was close-by, also in KwaThema. The brutality of Noxolo’s murder was very similar. It was in one of these open spaces, right next to this mall with 24-hour security, and there are houses around. They must have heard the screams. But up until now no one has been arrested. Nobody did anything, nobody went to the police. What I find disappointing is that the community does not come together and stand up against this violence, to say that this is a woman of our community who has been killed, and we want an end to it; without looking at her sexuality – because women are always targets – and go to look for the perpetrators, remembering that this could have been their daughter.

What do you think about the way the police and courts handle this issue, Zoliswa’s murder and homophobic hate crimes in general?

The police is a frustration. Of course, it’s a general thing that cases are not handled well; it’s not just with LGBTI cases, but what is disappointing is that they are not taken seriously. In recent years there have been a lot of cases reported. But in most cases there are little things they forget and things they do wrong in some way. Most cases just don’t go anywhere. Part of this is of course just being a black woman in a poor area; you’re not important.

In many cases when people come to report crimes, the police will call in their friends – ‘come, come and see’ – just to hear you say ‘I’ve been raped’ again, asking ‘are you a boy or a girl’ and so on. It’s a big problem.

We actually approached a police station, in Katlehong, to try and work with this problem. A majority of people in SA are homophobic, but we believe that we can create spaces for discussion and create awareness. We wanted to work with the front desk staff in particular. But to date, a year later, there has been no response. We offered to come in, with our resources, to open a discussion. But the station commander hasn’t given the go ahead so nothing is happening.

In 2009, Action Aid reported that in the previous ten years 31 lesbian women had been murdered in what they recognised as hate crimes. But the real rate of hate crimes, maybe in particular rape with the stigma of reporting that, must be much higher. Media reports seem to indicate that corrective rape, assaults etc, are on the increase. What is your assessment?

Very few cases get reported. The ones that we know of are the ones that get media attention. The issue of numbers is a big problem. As LGBTI organisations we haven’t had a system of bringing the reports together. People are working on their own and there is really no overview. Many LGBTI people prefer not to report hate crimes out of fear of the secondary victimisation that you get in police stations and so on. But there has been a lot of media attention on this in the past few years (although some of it has been quite sensationalist) and this may be part of people feeling a bit more confident to report rape and so on. So there isn’t necessarily an increase. But there isn’t really a statistic… Even if you approach police stations for their data, they won’t give it to you. There is no category of ‘hate crime’. So even when you know that you’ve been targeted because you are gay, it doesn’t get recorded as such. When you do report a crime, there is always this questioning; they claim there is no connection between a person being called names and intimidated over time and then raped. What needs to be understood is that the violence doesn’t just fall from the sky. It mostly starts with these small things – being called names, intimidated, isolated – until it has escalated to being beaten up or raped, of the victim of a gang…

Then, with the ActionAid report there was a lot of sensationalism. The numbers they gave were not accurate.

What do you think of the kind of statements that were made by king Zwelithini; condemning men who ‘abuse’ other men sexually and women who ‘abuse’ other women sexually?

They are very damaging. These statements are said, then withdrawn or just disappear from public attention, but then much later, somehow get to appear again in the middle of the paper. And you’ll find that as much as there may have been some apology, the statement has been taken up by someone who is looking for something to confirm their prejudice, who will become more confident and aggressive…

It seems clear that although Zwelithini appears to have been formally mistranslated initially, in spirit it was spot-on because he seemed to use the word ‘abuse’ as a code-word for ‘use’…

Exactly. And these are the people we look to for guidance, to condemn violence. It is very, very damaging. As a leader, even if that is your personal view, you need to think about the impact of what you are saying…

You are describing a situation where the frontiers have been pushed a bit against homophobia, where LGBTI people have a bit more confidence, and some awareness has been created – do you think that this could be provoking a sort of backlash from the homophobic establishment; institutions that defend the current order, like the police force or the royal house, that may feel under threat?

Yes I think there is a bit of a backlash. Actually I think there is a big threat against all the rights that have been won by marginalised people in SA.

Around 2008-9 there was a team of church leaders advising government which was apparently pushing for some of these ‘immoral rights’ to be revoked. This is a very real danger, I think. As much as there is this beautiful constitution, the reality is very different.  I think there is a risk that we could be taken years back. Leaders now feel that they can say anything against the laws of the country.

How do you feel homophobia and homophobic violence impact on your daily life; e.g in terms of limiting your freedom...?

It does limit your freedom. When I’m at home, we can be free; touch, talk as a couple. But when you are in public you need to be conscious that some people get irritated when they realise you are a couple. Wherever I go I’m always conscious about who and what is going on around me. Because of all the incidents, you avoid some places and what you think might happen there. Your freedom of movement and your freedom of expression get limited. Not just me but a lot of LGBTI people feel kind of imprisoned. These rights that we have, we don’t enjoy, because some people have taken upon themselves to ensure that we don’t. So it’s a very limited being, which is very unfair. We are fortunate to have those rights. But reality is very different. In SA, one thing I believe we failed to do when this constitution was developed was to take it to community level and really engage people. Now it’s sort of ‘up there’.

There’s a lot of work that should be done in working with communities. When I look at the situation, I see a lot of unemployment, poverty, inequality… We are a marginalised group among the marginalised, and become targets of the frustrations that some men have. A lot of men have the idea that women have more rights now, that women are being given opportunities at their expense. As LGBTI we become the easy target, especially lesbian women.

It seems that hate crimes against lesbians and gays and so on, in addition to being a direct threat to whoever is open with or suspected of non-hetero sexual orientation or expresses an ‘other’ gender identity, are also warnings directed at women (and men) in general, to stay within the box also in terms of power relations; maintaining society’s general subordination of women to men. What do you think?

Definitely, I do think it’s about asserting power. Most hate crimes are about women who are ‘masculine’, and some men feeling that their power is under threat because of that. It’s about ‘I’ll show how women are supposed to be…’

What would you like to see workers’ unions, community organisations, socialists do against homophobia?

I’d like to see communities and organisations to also take a stand and be vocal about their support for ending violence against LGBTI people, in the platforms where they participate and in the issues they are working with. I feel that when there has been a hate crime, communities should come together and speak out. Crimes should be reported to the police – while of course we know all the problems with the police as I’ve just said; at least it’s a signal that it’s not acceptable. At the moment I don’t feel that communities are doing this.

LGBTI people are people, and we are part of communities, part of families. If we always speak out alone, it’s as if we are just screaming alone. More voices from other people would make a change.

Given the situation, where these rights granted in the law are not translated into reality - what do you think it would take to end these hate crimes, intimidation and prejudice; to totally eradicate homophobia?

The issue needs to be seen as part of everything else. When there is talk about women and men being treated equally, the question of lesbian women should be raised. Homophobia exists among social movements as well. Diversity needs to become normal, with people looking at what we have in common instead. Now, a lot of people are ashamed. People should come to see you as the person you are behind your sexuality.

Silence on its own says a lot. Political leaders in SA are silent about these brutal murders, they are not standing up to say ‘this is wrong’.

People ask ‘but why do you choose to be gay?’ While for some it may be a conscious choice, for most of us it’s not. If you had a choice, would you choose to be part of the group that is harassed and intimidated and raped and murdered more than any other?

Izwi labasebenzi/ the Democratic Socialist Movement stands for the responsibility of organised workers and communities to defend the unity of our struggles by acknowledging gender-based oppression in general and homophobia in particular, by refusing to take part in it and making it part of the targets that have to be shot down along with class society itself. The struggle against homophobia and hate crimes must also be one for jobs and social security so that women do not have to be forced out of dependency on men or family into gender roles and abusive relationships.


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