CELEBRATING SOWETO PRIDE WITH SIPHOKAZI NOMBANDE

By Sive Mjindi 

 

This year’s Soweto Pride parade was held on Heritage day at Dorothy Nyembe Park, making it the 18th annual edition of the event. The Pride parade blended protest for justice for queer victims of violence as well as joyfully celebrating the township’s queer community in a vibrant march and exhibition open to all. Soweto pride was organized in a massive collaboration to continuously bring queer people to the forefront of the community’s awareness, gathering together hundreds of people from both in and out of the local community, activists, civil servants, politicians, and even foreign dignitaries to take part in breaking bread, sharing of drinks in celebrating queerness in a local setup and  fashion. 

Taking Pride’s roots at heart and in celebrating this year’s Soweto Pride parade, we reflect on what Pride means for all of us today in our own spaces while resonating with the message – “Sisekhona” (we are still here) as queer folk, which also happened to be the theme of Soweto Pride this year.  We speak to Siphokazi Nombande, the advocacy coordinator of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) and one of the key organizers of Soweto Pride; taking  a look at Soweto Pride’s successful legacy as well as as someone who champions our community by celebrating who we are and what our own queer culture has contributed to our society.  

 

Sive: May you briefly tell us about (FEW) the Forum for Women’s Empowerment; the work that the NPO does?

Siphokazi: FEW was established by black, lesbian women activists living in Johannesburg in 2001. In a post-1994 South Africa and with the new constitution of 1996 recognizing sexual orientation within the equality clause, it was clear that we had to organize ourselves to ensure that we were able to claim and live the rights entrenched in the constitution. Already, with increasing numbers of LGBTI people coming out and being visible both in everyday life as well as within human rights defending work; the age-old issues of discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization were becoming more blatant. The group which initially began the conversation about organizing black lesbians was concerned that within the broader LGBTI and women’s human rights issues, black lesbian women were more vulnerable because of intersecting identities, contexts, and realities.

 

Sive: How did FEW decide to initiate & organize Soweto Pride?

Siphokazi: Soweto Pride is a project initiated by FEW in 2004 with the aim of creating and making political and social space for black lesbian women and all queer people to create visibility and amplify their voices; also to engage community organizations and the broader local community in Soweto. Soweto Pride is used as a political vehicle to confront homophobia and discrimination experienced by gays and lesbians in South Africa, especially those living in the townships. FEW partners with organizations working in the LGBT sector, women’s rights, and broader human rights on this project. The project has also created opportunities for networking with organizations and people that participate in Soweto Pride.

 

When the event started in 2004, a small number of gays and lesbians marched in the streets of Soweto despite the fear of being attacked but over the few years, Soweto Pride has grown in attendance numbers. Now not only LGBTIQ+ people participate in this march but also families, friends, and those that support us join in general to show support for ending homophobia in our townships. People of different races also come in huge numbers to show solidarity with the community of Soweto.

 

Sive: What are some challenges you overcame in organizing this year’s Pride march in Soweto?

Siphokazi: Funding, funding, and funding was the biggest challenge when organizing pride. We managed to get a grant from our donors,  as well as different organizations and individuals who donated in order to make this pride a success. It was difficult but in the end, the hard work paid off and we successfully raised enough to organize the march and celebration after.

 

Sive: What does Pride (in its global and local context) mean to you?

Siphokazi: Pride is not just a party, it’s [always been] a protest against homophobic mistreatment women and queer people experience, and to me, it means being in a safe space with people that understand your struggles. [Pride means] Feeling accepted, also feeling like you belong.  

 

Sive: This was a very well-attended Pride march. What made this year’s pride particularly so successfully attended & received?

Siphokazi: This year we have put all our focus on the march and to see how we can make the march bigger and better since it is the most important part of Soweto Pride. We have engaged a couple of organizations and even sent them personalized invitations to gather interest and participation. We also invited organizations to do activations during the march and we also invited the Embassies of the European and US missions to partake in the local event. We have also invited the Gender Brigade to be part of the march because we would like to get to a point whereby each of our marches is attended by at least over a thousand people. This was all because we would be making a bold statement to all saying ‘Sisekhona, We are still here’ as queer people and that became the theme that we have used for Soweto Pride 2022.

 

Sive: Justice for Queer persons and victims of hate crimes (as well as violence) was a major part of this Pride and the march especially when a vigil and a moment of silence were held to honor these victims. Tell us more about why this is important considering South Africa’s modern climate of various issues.

Siphokazi: The theme for Soweto Pride was #SISEKHONA translating to ‘we are here” and “we are still here. This is born as a bold reminder to the communities within which LGBTI+ people exist. Lesbians with other Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex people live in fear, especially in townships, where they are targeted because of their sexual orientation. Even though the constitution of the country protects all citizens, the LGBTI community daily lived realities and experiences prevent them from enjoying these rights. Homophobic violation is experienced in different forms, stages, and levels; some resulting in extremely brutal attacks on this community which has led to the increased number of killings happening in communities and other places. It’s too vital an issue not to know or care about in this day and age.

 

Sive: Can you give us some context on how issues faced by women and LGBT communities intersect from your viewpoint?

Siphokazi: It is a challenge to be a woman in South Africa and it is even worse to be a lesbian because women in general are at risk of being raped and killed at any time. Lesbians are being discriminated against because of their sexuality and gender identity, just as all members of the community are; and we all have to play our part in ending the cycle of violence against us.

 

Sive: Please let us know which other stakeholders significantly contributed to this year’s Pride.  

Siphokazi: The Other Foundation, Access chapter 2, Action Aid, The European Embassies, The US & UK Embassies, JASS (Just Associates) advocacy network and GALA Queer Archive were all very helpful in organizing this year’s Pride.

 

Sive: Why do you think queer visibility/Pride is important to observably celebrate everywhere?

Siphokazi: We are using pride as an advocacy tool all the time. We would like to see most communities hosting their own pride to claim the spaces and celebrate their queer identities safely.   

Since the first Pride parade in Mzansi was held back in 1990, October has become Pride month in South Africa every year in the last three decades. Over the years, Pride happens annually in different cities across the nation not just as an observance of the first Pride parade’s anniversary in Mzansi, but also as a celebration of the inclusivity, growth, and legitimacy of the queer community in our countries ‘rainbow’ nation. While Soweto Pride only began in 2004 its impact on the local community and queer people in the township has already reverberated the call to action against homophobia and discrimination loudly throughout society, boldly celebrating and granting a safe space for those marginalized in their daily lives for being different and upsetting the societal norms of injustice. Where we once marched for equality and decriminalization of homosexuality under the discriminative apartheid laws that existed then; we continue to march now for the right to exist uncensored, and for justice over the lives of queer people who have not had the opportunity to live free because of their orientation in our country. We march in Pride because while democracy and self-governance are constitutionally upheld, they continue to be out of reach realistically for many queer people- such as the many who were victims of homophobic violence this year alone. In their’s and all others worldwide’s memory, we take pride in being queer by affirming with our very lives that we are, and always will still “be here and queer”.

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