Written by Motlatsi Motseoile
I had intended to do a virtual call with Ms Yaya Mavundla to conduct our interview, but as we text to plan, she manages to convince me that if we meet in person, I will get more out of her. We agree to meet in Rosebank, where we choose a quiet spot. I arrive, and spot her in the corner of my eye, she is wearing a fitting crop fit jacket from her clothing line, Queer Comfort, trendy shades and long blonde braids. As she stands up to give me a welcoming hug, I marvel at the woman in front of me, who is a far cry from the young woman I met a few years ago in the busy streets of Johannesburg.
For many LGBTQIA+ people, the concept of family is wrapped up in trauma and tragedy. Many LGBTQIA+ people have often found themselves without anyone to call family as they are disowned by their families, and have had to choose between familial love and being their authentic selves. For the reality star, entrepreneur and transgender rights activist, her journey of defining family has been based on love and connection and not so much biology. “For where I come from, I used to believe family is biological but I think having gone through the journey of finding my mom, does that mean I still define my family through biology, even if I don’t know what that is? I have lived with different people who have loved more or equally as my biological family love me. For me, family is a connection, that is how I define it, a connection with certain individuals,” she tells me.
In her debut reality show, Mzansi Magic’s Becoming, we follow Yaya as she confronts her family about her mother. It is revealed in the show that her mother left the family when Yaya and her siblings were young, and has never been heard from since. Raised by her grandmother and father, Yaya left home at 16, seeking to establish herself and figure out what she wants for herself. Her quest has landed her in Johannesburg where she is primarily based, but she is also now, a citizen of the world. And this has helped define family for her and show her who could be in her corner.
She adds that “Nceba Klaasen is my family, he is my brother and my child. Zanele Muholi is my family, we have worked together, been friends and then they became a parent to me and we share a place together in Cape Town. They know when I am frustrated and when I am happy. They know me at my best and worst. Zinhle is like a big sister to me. She has housed me before, and made me feel at home. When someone leaves you at their place and trusts you that much, that’s the relationship that defines family. That connection and trust is what makes family.”
It is evident that Yaya values love, trust and emotional bonds over biology. As a transgender rights activist, she considers other trans women her sisters, in life and in the struggle for equality and visibility. Yaya believes they should be there for each other and that is a sign of family as well, she notes. She acknowledges that family for LGBTQIA+ people is a difficult subject, but says it is made harder by how LGBTQIA+ people often disempower themselves just to appease families. We both reflect on the trauma of coming out, which can be experienced by many queer people. Yaya tells me that she has never sat her family down to come out, but they know she’s transgendered. “I think we need to redefine coming out. This is why I believe in rewriting my own history. For me coming out means living your truth. I have never sat anyone at home and said this is who I am. At home, they watch my show and they took part in it. The fear comes from how we give people, friends and family, power. The power to approve who we are.”
The idea of truth is central to Yaya, and how she views herself and her relationships with her family, biological and chosen. She reflects on a photo shoot she did recently and how previously she may have been afraid to pose in the nude; but as someone insistent on living in her truth, she knows no one can use her truth against her, not even her family. “I didn’t know a lot of things growing up. I learnt things after I left home. My first big choice was to leave home at 16. I didn’t know that I had courage. That I had the power to do things I wanted to do. But I realised I had the power. I had the power to decide,” she boldly states.
Yaya’s power to decide includes being part of Becoming, a reality show that aired on Mzansi Magic (Channel 161) and Showmax, following the lives of transgender people, going through different journeys of becoming themselves. Yaya’s story on the show is centred on becoming the woman she is, an evolving project. It was also about reconciling her past and present where her family is concerned. In the show, she can be seen confronting her family about her mother’s departure and how that narrative has been told to her over the years. I am big on love and forgiveness. “I am big on reality. So I will have an honest conversation with my father, and if I feel he is not telling the truth, I will tell him. But I cannot stop loving him because of things that happened in the past. I am big on doing things I want to do. I was on a call with my grandmother and we spoke about where I am in terms of this issue. I told myself I am going to follow my heart and trust my intuition. I will not live by people’s expectations. Even as I shot Becoming, the crew would be shocked by how I dealt with things,” she shares.
The marvellous Yaya invites us as viewers to follow her in search of her mother, a journey that did not yield positive results. As the show reaches to its finale, Yaya remains hopeful that she will be reunited with her mother. She tells me that she is reluctant to speak about her mother and her continued search, but she is prepared to share that while working on Becoming. The crew and team promised to help her continue with her search but when the show wrapped, they were not there. That did not make her bitter or angry but inspired her to be creative and still continue her search, which is currently still on.
It is Yaya’s resolve to remain hopeful and optimistic despite all that life has dealt her. From losing her relationship with her mother, to re-establishing herself away from the safety of family, she still believes in what’s possible and what life brings. She maintains that forgiveness and truth are keys to her life and those around her. This forgiveness is not only reserved for her family, it is proffered to her friends and the men she chooses to date, some of which, she shares have been emotionally taxing and abusive to her. In all this, she remains trusting that her traumas known to her family will be kept in confidence; because, even in the harshest of times, family still protects each other.
When all is said and done, what does the future hold for this ambitious woman? Yaya says she used to dream of a family of her own, at one point dreaming of marriage and even adopting her brother’s children; but she has resigned herself to the role of a good aunt and godmother. Her focus is on building her empire and helping other transwomen in her community. This will start by being a role model through her new clothing venture called Queer Comfort, which she says she’s hard at work to put into retail stores, to give customers a physical shopping experience.
She is also working hard at a TV programme that will give transwomen a platform to share and connect through their own stories. The time for transwomen to be at the centre is now, and 2023 is the year for this to happen, she believes. Finally, she is hard at work to launch an awards platform for the LGBTQIA+ community because she believes we need more platforms to celebrate and recognise icons that are doing amazing things for the community. The year ahead seems to be busy, but through her family, she remains grounded and focused on what is important – changing the world for the better, especially for transgender women.