Race, Entitlement and Gay Pride in South Africa

In supposedly post-apartheid South Africa - where political and economic power are at odds - what happens in gay spaces?

Image credit Niko Knigge via Flickr.

It’s been a week since the now infamous events of the Joburg Pride Parade, where the organization One in Nine attempted to disrupt the parade in order to protest both systemic violence targeting black lesbians in South Africa and the commercialization of the Pride event itself. The heart of the protest, calling for one minute of silence for black queer victims of violence, was met by animosity and additional violence from the predominantly white attendees. Reading media reports of the event itself, we are reminded of the complexities of Marikana; in the days and weeks following the mining massacre, there was no clear or easy story, but rather multiple histories of capitalism, violence, state repression, and brutality, each jostling against each other and refracting in confusing new realities. Yet as Brett has stated on this site, this “was not a crime and a tragedy on the scale of Marikana. It was not even startling and unusual.” But it was gripping to see it captured so vividly on film, where both the violence and fearful, misguided claims of legitimacy are revealed in such simple, disheartening ways.

One of the most salient moments of the Pride exchange occurs in the video when white organizer Jenny Green shouts “This is my route!” at the protestors; yelling with confusion and anger from her car. There is, perhaps, an understandable sense of anger at someone’s meticulously planned public event being ‘ruined’ by the arrival of unexpected bodies. Yet the confusion and incredulity that anchor that angry sentence say so much more. “This is my route!” is a claim to space, and to authority and legitimacy on the highly politicized streets of Johannesburg, and South Africa in general. The stakes are not merely over the timeliness of organizing and schedules on a springtime march through the city; rather, that simple sentence reveals much about claims and counter claims of legitimacy in a postapartheid South Africa, made infinitely more complicated through the politics of sexuality and LGBTQI rights. Who is allowed to claim the legitimacy and authority to plan the “route” in question? In an ostensibly post-apartheid South Africa, where political legitimacy no longer rests in the hands of the white minority but the economic and social inequalities still weigh highly in their favor, these questions loom large.

South Africans sympathetic to the One in Nine Campaign have viewed the protest as a legitimate social critique of Pride’s evolution from its dangerous and politically powerful beginnings in 1990 under the apartheid regime. In particular, filmmaker Gillian Schutte, photographer Nadine Hutton and journalist Charl Blignaut have been deeply critical of the racial assumptions and entitlements that have produced such angry, defensive responses from Joburg Pride Parade supporters, most of them white. Schutte pointedly asserts, “The violence and hatred shown to the One in Nine protestors was another example of white entitlement. Not a jot of embarrassment was shown by the abusers.” In her assessment, Hutton made explicit the consequences of white entitlement at the Pride Parade: “the face of this year’s gay pride was ugly and racist and violent. This is the daily horror of black queers.” Schutte adds that the violence towards the black protestors threatened by Green (who revved her car at the protestors amid calls to ‘run them over’) and directly enacted by fellow organizer Tanya Harford, served to “show just how little most white people empathise with black issues, black bodies and black emotionality. The inherent mantra of ‘white is right’ was written all over this event.” Blignaut decried the “privileged white queers who want to place us all in a neat, homogenous box,” allowing a “queer apartheid” to slowly develop within Pride celebrations.

Writing for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, Rebecca Davis argues that the racial lines both in South Africa—and particularly within the LGBTQI community—are enduring and powerful. The article privileges One in Nine member Kwezilomso Mbandazayo as a major source, and reports some of her (and the group at large) concerns faithfully: that the Joburg Pride board is exclusively white, that Pride has become a depoliticized, commercialized space existing only as a social celebration without any social power or purpose, and that all of this is taking place in a moment where queer black people face daily threats of violence that are completely ignored by the Parade.

As Davis’s piece (and Brett’s post on AIAC) make clear, the politics of white supremacy and resistance have been stamped upon South Africa’s LGBTQI history as much as everywhere else within the country. The utter insularity of many white South Africans from the daily realities experienced by over eight-tenths of the population from whose outright oppression they benefitted collectively is threaded through the history of LGBTQI struggle in South Africa. The largely white dominated GASA (Gay Association of South Africa) refused to denounce apartheid, and its leaders publicly equivocated when black gay activist Simon Nkoli was jailed by the apartheid state, showing the very thin level of queer solidarity within the country.

The media analysis and the video footage from Saturday’s event both illustrate an obvious point: the assumption propagated by the Pride Parade that people possessing a shared experience of oppression by heteronormative society will unite in solidarity is at best a naïve illusion and at worst a dangerous deception, as the protestors attacked on Saturday can surely attest. Living in South Africa, we have observed a sense of ‘black rights fatigue’ playing at the edges of many forms of white political discourse. The idea that the systemic exploitation and disadvantage of the country’s majority should be ‘fixed’ after two decades, or can be solely assigned to the incompetence of the ANC is a convenient myth that justifies this dangerous white entitlement. It is used by white South Africans weary of having to feel guilty or even think about the entitlements that have led them to such extremely different circumstances from those dwelling in the townships (or lokshini, as a white Pride marcher derogatorily referred to the supposed homes of the One in Nine protesters).

Yet as we have watched the video over and over, that sentence still haunts us. “This is my route.” The fraught politics of belonging rear their head in those four words. For all of the assertion of power and threats of violence behind Green’s words, she is trying, desperately, to assert that she belongs, that she is control, and that she has a place in South Africa. Yet the black bodies lying in front of her on that Rosebank road tell her that she does not, should not have the power to draw the routes she desires. The bodies in the street attempt to crack a racialized sense of entitlement that allow Green and others like her to pretend they are not part of the larger forces that have turned a historic political demonstration into a commercial party, and continue to obscure the lived terror of less privileged members of her own ostensible ‘community.’

Further Reading