16 June: A non-celebratory day
by Kellyn Botha
South Africa, 16 June 2017
This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, which was sparked on 16 June 1976 by school pupils tired of the violence inflicted upon them by the state. Today we remember their righteous anger and bravery in the face of oppression with a day off work, and the same well-rehearsed platitudes that politicians have delivered since that old government was replaced with the democracy that exists today.
Only, South Africa is at a crossroads, and once more the youth are the ones to bear the brunt of violence. Where just over four decades ago violence was sanctioned directly by the state, the violence that afflicts the youth now is prevalent in all levels of our society. The state, apart from announcing its condemnation, has done little to assist the poor, black youth of our time, the women, and the queer bodies who often feel the brunt of violence. It has collectively taken South Africa just a few decades to remember the tragic reasons for the holiday we call Youth Day – and it has taken us just a few weeks to forget the reason #MenAreTrash was trending on social media. Karabo Mokoena has been buried, and it is time to move on to the next outrage.
Women keep dying; the poor, disenfranchised persons of colour that make up a majority of the country’s population keep dying; and members of the LGBTI+ community keep dying. And by and large the majority of victims are young, under 35.
In the last five years alone, Iranti has documented an alarming number of hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgender youth. The stories make for some truly horrific reading:
2012 - Kuruman
Thapelo Makutle, a young gay man from the Northern Cape, was Iranti’s first hate crime case, five years ago. The brutality of his murder had been downplayed by local SAPS who documented Makutle’s death as being due to “neck injury”. Iranti’s investigations revealed that the young man was partially decapitated, with his own severed genitals shoved into his mouth as a clear indication of the reason for his murder.
2013 - Johannesburg
The primary breadwinner in a family of nine, Duduzile Zozo was a masculine-presenting lesbian who identified as gender-nonconforming. Zozo’s body was found in a neighbour’s yard in Thokoza Township, Johannesburg, and a post-mortem found that “a foreign object was forced into Duduzile’s vagina before she died”. Zozo was only 26.
2014 - Ventersdorp
Disebo 'Gift' Makau was found dead near her home in Tshing Township in the North West in August of 2014. She was raped then strangled with a piece of wire. A hosepipe was forced down the lesbian’s throat by the attacker with the water turned on. Water overflowing into a neighbour's property led to the discovery of the horrific scene.
Disebo was open about her identity as a lesbian and had the support of her family and partner. The perpetrator, Pule Stoffel Botlhokwane showed no remorse in court and was sentenced to two life terms plus 15 years for robbery. The perpetrator was a member of the 26’s gang, and Makau’s mother was harassed for many months after the court ruling, forcing her to flee her home for a time.
2015 - Potchefstroom
Openly queer music student at North West University's Potchefstroom campus, Bobby Motlala, was found dead in their apartment bedroom, naked and with 39 stab wounds to the chest. Although being discovered on 10 November, police stated that the murder may have happened at least four days earlier and that Bobby may have been sexually assaulted as well.
Bobby had recently passed the final exam required to enter NWU’s Master’s programme and majored in singing.
2016 - Potchefstroom
Only 17 years old, the openly gay grade 10 high school pupil was found dead in a field by a passerby. Apparently strangled by a shoelace almost two years after the strangling of Disebo Makau. The scene was made more horrific by the discovery of a dead baby wrapped in plastic nearby, though police believed this to be a separate case.
A memorial was held at Promosa Secondary School where Makousa was a student, attended by members of Iranti, local advocacy groups, and many friends and family. The court dates for the brutal murder have been set for 11-17 August 2017.
2016 - Ventersdorp
Walking through the street one August evening with a friend in the North West town, Melissa Makau was stopped at gunpoint by a member of the 26's gang. The friend was told to run, while the attacker took Makau to his back room and proceeded to rape her at gunpoint. After the brutal ordeal, Makau’s perpetrator said, “Tell your other lesbian friends they are next. I know where they stay and I know their working hours.”
The perpetrator had been stalking Melissa for some time before the event, and is known within the community for having committed several other violent crimes. The prosecutor tasked with handling the case asked for someone else to replace him as he feared retaliation from other gang members. To date no further information about the case has been given, nor has a court date been set.
2016 - Potchefstroom
Onalenna Ntang was raped and viciously attacked in Ikageng township in the North West, but authorities have not revealed further details as of their last communication with Action For Social Justice International. The perpetrators remain at large and are wanted for attempted murder.
2016 - Khayelitsha
Cape Town-based lesbian activist, Noluvo Swelindawo, was shot dead near her home in December 2016 to the shock of many in her community. The was much loved, according to friends and family, who felt that the area was generally accepting and supportive of Swelindawo’s identity/
2017 - Potchefstroom
A lesbian woman was kidnapped from outside her home in Mohadin, North West Province, while talking on her phone with a friend on 1 April. Three males aged 16, 17 and 19, dragged her to a field where they assaulted her with rocks, kicked her in the head and stabbed her. Two members took turns raping her before the trio fled with her cellphone and other valuables.
The victim survived but was left traumatised and in critical condition in hospital due to the extent of the wounds.
2017 - Kroonstad
On 1 April, the same day as the assault in Mohadin township, the body of Nonki Smous was found in the Free State town of Kroonstad. It was charred beyond recognition. Smous, an ‘out’ lesbian, was murdered just days after attending a Pride event in Bloemfontein, and took local police and the LGBTI community by surprise. Smous’ funeral was delayed in order for a forensics team to verify the identity of the body, but was finally held on Friday, 12 May. The same day as the hearing for Karabo Mokoena’s boyfriend, who as the prime suspect in Mokoena’s murder in Johannesburg, sparked the #MenAreTrash social media trend.
2017 - Soweto
Then on 14 May, as the Sunday papers offered unto South Africans their catchy headlines from the Friday trial and yet more #MenAreTrash thinkpieces, the murder of another lesbian came to light. Lerato ‘Tambai’ Moloi was raped and stoned to death in Soweto. Iranti attended the funeral, as did the local community and representatived of the ANC. But it is hard to believe that the support shown by civil servants and local media would have been as extensive as it was, had the young woman’s death not come at a time when social consciousness was directed at South Africa’s femicide epidemic.
There is no way to compile a complete list of attacks against young LGBTI South Africans. Many individuals who survive may be unwilling to come forward for fear of being humiliated and discriminated against further; many who do not survive are not known to be queer by the police, media, or even their own families. In South Africa, the police do not have the training or framework with which to label such attacks as hate crimes. But the brutality of many of the above-mentioned events speaks volumes, even without complete details. These are hate crimes without a doubt, and young, poor, queer, black women are victims in disproportionately high numbers.
As a society, South Africans must come together to fight against this violence, and must deconstruct the reasons for it. We must be intersectional in our thinking and understand the struggles faced by those who must live through the varied marginalised identities of our land. Unless the root psychosocial causes for these acts of violence are identified and, with greater social and political will; eradicated, young people will continue to die.
And every once in a while, a particular murder will capture the public imagination and another #MenAreTrash will be born. But then it will fade. It will no longer be newsworthy. Youth Day will come again and more of the youth will have died. More women. More queers. But South Africa will enjoy another day off work, savouring the victory of struggles-past, turning a blind eye to struggles-ongoing.
We are better than this. We can do better than this.