After a spate of violent attacks that have rocked the country’s LGBTQ community, South Africa does not have much to celebrate this Pride Month. 

June is acknowledged in most progressive countries as Pride Month, as it commemorates the Stonewall Riots that occurred in New York at the end of June 1969. The Stonewall Riots were a series of protests organised by members of the LGBTQ community after a violent police raid at the Stonewall Inn – a popular gay bar in New York City.  Since then, June is the month in which queer people across the world celebrate their achievements through Pride parades and events, and draw attention to challenges the community still faces. 

South Africa, which, in terms of legislation, is one of the most progressive countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights, is also celebrating Pride Month this June.  Johannesburg’s Rosebank Mall has erected a banner showing the LGBTQ Pride colours with the caption: ‘The Zone, Rosebank celebrates love all-ways’.

A few schools in South Africa have raised the Pride flag, among them, St John’s College and Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, and Cape Town’s Fairmont High School. The Pride flag has also been raised outside the KwaZulu-Natal Museum and the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature in Pietermaritzburg. Beauty company, Avon, with its African headquarters based in Johannesburg’s financial district, will commemorate Pride Month, with a keynote address by gay-rights activist Judge Edwin Cameron. In Cape Town, shoe brands Converse and Vans have released their LGBTQ-themed collection featuring the Pride Flag colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Durban will host a Pride Festival Market, subject to Covid-19 regulations, at the end of June. 

Series of violent hate crimes

However, these demonstrations celebrating the local queer community by the private sector and government institutions ring hollow after a series of violent hate crimes in South Africa recently.  At the end of May, dozens of people gathered at Johannesburg’s Constitutional Hill for a vigil to honour those murdered since February because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Images of the most recent victims were placed on the walls of the courtyard of the historic Old Fort. 

On 12 February, Bonang Gaelae and her partner were attacked in Sebokeng, with Bonang dying from her injuries. Their attacker allegedly knew the couple and had made advances to Gaelae before. In Pietermaritzburg, Nonhlanhla Kunene was raped and murdered on 5 March. Corrective rape, when men rape lesbians in order to ‘cure’ them, occurs so frequently in South Africa, that the term was coined in the country.  Sphamandla Khoza, a gay man in Durban, was beaten, stabbed and had his throat slit after an altercation with a group of men who heckled him for being gay.  Nathaniel Mbele, a gay man from Vanderbiljpark, was found stabbed to death on 2 April. In Mpophomeni, close to Howick, Khulekani Gomazi, a 27-year-old transgender woman, was tortured for hours by her own family members before later succumbing to her injuries.

On 10 April, Andile Ntuthela’s mutilated and burned body was found close to Gqeberha. Lonwabu Jack was stabbed to death in Nyanga, Cape Town, the day after he celebrated his 22nd birthday. The body of Lucky Kleinboy Motshabi was found in a field in the town of Dennilton on 24 April. He was naked, with stab wounds on his body. Phelokazi Mqathana was stabbed to death in Khayelitsha after she allegedly rejected the advances of a man while she was out socialising. Lindokuhle Mapu, a 23-year-old gay man, was murdered in Mfuleni, outside Cape Town, on Sunday 9 May.

Since then, in Pride Month, four more members of the LGBTQ community have been murdered. Flight attendant Aubrey Boshoga was stabbed to death outside his home in Johannesburg. Lulama Mvandaba died of her injuries, including burn wounds, after being assaulted outside a shebeen in Cape Town. Anele Bhengu’s stabbed and disembowelled body was found on a roadside in Kwamakhutha, KwaZulu-Natal. The brutality of the killing suggests that Anele’s murder was likely a hate crime. Masixole Level, a hairstylist in Gqeberha, was stabbed to death on 6 June. 

A dangerous place

These incidents of horrific violence against the LGBTQ community show that despite South Africa’s liberal constitution, the country remains a dangerous place for most queer people.  

According to a 2016 study by OUT LGBT Wellbeing, LGBTQ South Africans’ experience of intolerance ranges from being verbally insulted or threatened with physical violence and being chased or followed or having objects thrown at them to personal property and possessions being damaged or destroyed, being punched, hit, kicked or beaten, experiencing violence or physical abuse from a family member, being sexually abused or raped, and being murdered. 

Black LGBT individuals appear most likely to be victims of physical violence (8%, against 7% nationally for all race groups); white individuals appear most likely to be verbally insulted (45% against 39%); and Indian/Asian individuals appear most likely to experience violence or physical abuse from a family member (11% against 7%).  Furthermore, an average of four out of ten LGBT South Africans – 49% if they are black – know of someone who has been murdered ‘for being or suspected of being’ a member of this community.

LGBTQ people in rural areas are also a lot more vulnerable than their urban counterparts. The Eastern Cape emerged as the province where violence against LGBT people is most common – 15% against the national average of 7% – and where the highest number of respondents (48%) reported knowing someone who was murdered for being or suspected of being part of the LGBT community. 

In response to the sudden spike in attacks witnessed since the start of 2021, more than 20 of the country’s LGBTQ civil society organisations released a joint statement calling on President Ramaphosa and his government to take more action.

‘Deeply ashamed’

President Ramaphosa did publicly condemn the attacks at the official National Freedom Day celebrations in Botshabelo, saying: ‘Over the past few months, there have been a series of terrible crimes that have been committed against members of this community, including murder…This is something which we as a nation should be deeply ashamed of. I want to send a strong message that hate crime will not be tolerated in our society, and that those who are behind these crimes will be found and brought to book.’

Yet, the government has made no concerted effort to come up with a strategy to deal with this sudden spike in attacks. 

The Rapid Response Team which comprises the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the National Prosecuting Authority, and the South African Police Service (SAPS), was established to urgently attend to pending and reported cases in the criminal justice system involving hate crimes committed against LGBTI persons. 

Other institutions that have been created in order to deal with hate crimes in the country include the National Task Team (NTT) and the Provincial Task Team (PTT).  Yet, a meeting between LGBTQ civil society groups and the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Ronald Lamola, revealed that all of these institutions suffer from delays, are inadequately funded and are sparsely attended by SAPS.  According to the Minister, only R2.4 million of the R26 million National Implementing Strategy budget has been allocated to the PTT and the NTT.

Many LGBTQ members also feel that they are unable to trust and fully rely on the SAPS to create a safer environment for them. 

Shocking figures

Shocking figures from the 2016 Out LGBT Well-being study showed that only 13% of LGBTQ victims of discrimination actually reported incidents to the police.  Furthermore, of all those who actually reported a crime to the police, only 21% indicated that the police were ‘very helpful’. A further 28% said that the police were at least ‘somewhat helpful’, while a majority (51%) stated that the police were ‘not helpful’ at all.

The study also indicated that the majority of complaints against the police centred around the fact that the police would not take them seriously, would do nothing with the complaint, were homophobic and even acted in an abusive way towards the victims themselves. 

The spike in violent murders of LGBTQ people in South Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. As shown in the OUT LGBT Well-being study, only a small fraction of hate crimes actually is reported to the police. The queer body count in South Africa is therefore suspected to be much higher. This should not be the case 25 years after the country outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Government has not only failed to ensure that South Africa is a safe place for queer people, but our political leaders clearly just pay lip service to the LGBTQ community during times such as Pride Month. 

One step in the right direction would be for the government to properly equip the Rapid Response Team, NTT and the PTT. Education has also proved to be a useful tool in changing attitudes and beliefs regarding sexual orientation and increasing tolerance and acceptance. The government therefore needs to lead by example and implement public awareness campaigns to combat harmful beliefs about the LGBTQ community.

Without these steps, the onslaught on the LGBTQ community will continue. As things stand, South Africa has no reason to be proud. 

[Image: Steve Johnson from Pixabay]

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Gerbrandt van Heerden is an analyst at the Centre For Risk Analysis (CRA), a think tank specialising in political risk, economic policy and scenario planning.