South Africa is sometimes known as “the gay heaven” of Africa, where same-sex marriage is legal and human rights for all are enshrined in the post-Apartheid Constitution. But there is a gulf between the legal framework and the LGBTI community’s lived experience. Discrimination and brutal hate crimes continue, especially in rural areas. ZwaKala is an EU-funded programme implemented by Iranti-org which builds local capacity to document and report on hate crimes and human rights violations.
ZwaKala means “speak out / rise up”, and the three-year programme aims to help community-based organisations (CBOs) do just that in three provinces with the highest rates of LGBTI human rights abuses - Gauteng, Northern Cape and Limpopo.
“Our main aim is to enhance their knowledge on human rights, and make sure they are capacitated when it comes to organising themselves and reporting abuses,” explained Nomsa Manzini, the project coordinator. “We teach them how to document stories happening in their areas, so if something happens they don’t have to wait for Iranti to come to capture those stories.”
So far 36 citizen journalists have been trained to use flip-cameras, conduct interviews and use social media. ZwaKala also has two media officers who focus on LGBTI human rights abuses which might otherwise go unnoticed. They keep files on offences against LGBTI people in each province, information the police does not hold separately from total crime figures.
“Hate crimes are classified as any other crime,” explained Ayanda Msiza, media and documentation officer. “You can’t go to the police for statistics of how many lesbians were killed in the last four years. They just have all the murders. But my case is not the same as another woman’s case, because mine is perpetuated because of how I look, how I dress, how I present myself to community, how I express myself and how I decide to engage in the community.”
“The police will say the mere fact you are a lesbian doesn’t matter, as any woman can be raped and murdered,” said Gugu Mandla, media and documentation officer and project coordinator. “But it’s about the brutality – the way they were killed, the way their body parts – someone was trying to prove a point. This crime was caused by hate.”
The work of documenting and reporting can be dangerous. “In Limpopo, we had an incident when a gay man was beaten up by a group of men because of how he was dressing,” said Manzini. “When a team [from a local CBO] tried to be part of solving the problem, they realised the community was not at all welcoming to the issue. Most of the community leaders were saying being gay is a taboo. In some rural areas people still believe it’s a mental disorder, or it’s not acceptable in the community, and that is a serious challenge. We wanted to go to Limpopo to document the story of that man, but it was very bad, they were going to beat them up, kill them – our members were threatened by the community. When they went to the police to report the case, they were victimized by the police. Instead of being taken seriously, the gay man was arrested. There is a lot of work to do on sensitizing the community.”
Iranti organises training sessions for organisations including South African Police Services and the Commission for Gender Equity to sensitize staff on LGBTI issues. But as it is not systematic, the results have been limited, according to Msiza. “Even if you train one or two staff, chances are when you come some time later, you find that the people who were sensitized have left, and we have to start all over again with the new staff. It’s heart-breaking to do the work and not see results, like stepping and not going anywhere, while people are still being violated,” said Msiza.
Iranti has found discrimination against LGBTI people even in government-run public services such as education and healthcare. “As long as you come to hospital and present differently to what your ID says, it’s a problem,” said Msiza. “They’ll question your dress code, why do you speak like a man, why don’t you sit like this, why don’t you stand in this queue, not that queue – you always have to answer these questions first before you’ll get the services.”
Other colleagues at Iranti had experienced similar treatment. “The thing is, we come from a very patriarchal background as black people here in South Africa,” said Ajax Sengwayo, an intern for Gauteng. “One thing we experience in the health department - maybe if the [LGBTI] person went in with flu, they’d be forced to have a pregnancy test, even if they don’t feel they need it. It’s quite humiliating, and if you refuse the test, they ask, why, are you not sleeping with men? It’s a form of victimization.”
At school there is a high drop-out rate among black LGBTI teenagers, according to Sengwayo, who puts it down to discrimination and bullying from students and even teachers. When Iranti tries to organise dialogues at schools to address these issues, “they say, you want to teach the children to become like you,” said Msiza. “A lot of work needs to be done.”
Another aspect of the ZwaKala programme is helping LGBTI CBOs bolster their institutional framework, and increasing their capacity for effective advocacy work. Many of South Africa’s LGBTI groups were not officially registered as organisations, making it hard for them to advance. “They can get an office from the municipality, but they have to be registered and show they are legit,” said Msiza. “There was an issue of registration, of being a structure, what it means to be an organisation, who needs to make decisions, how to write proposals.”
Through the programme, eight CBOs received support on these areas. Iranti-org also organised five events to raise awareness of hate crimes and human rights violations, which were attended by 294 people.
“One of the main aims of this project is inculcating a culture of not only diversity, but also acceptance of sexual orientation,” said Stefano Varriale, programme manager for Rule of Law, Human Rights and Migration at the EU Delegation to South Africa. “The activities of the project are doing very well in expanding the network of different stakeholders, especially at grassroots levels, with community-based advice offices. They also work with police and government institutions, and they would also like to announce their activities at school level, to foster open and constructive dialogue on such delicate issues.”
The ZwaKala programme receives €300,000 from the EU’s Rule of Law, Human Rights and Migration portfolio.
Besides supporting Iranti, the EU Delegation to South Africa is pushing to advance LGBTI rights through other platforms. “We are trying to announce dialogues at different levels, with CSOs in this field, and CSOs that work on other human rights related areas. Dialogue among different spheres that deal in the human rights area is fundamental,” said Varriale. “We also try to pay particular attention to the sexual orientation dimension when it comes to draft guidelines on grant schemes that we support, through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, and our bilateral programmes with South Africa in particular with justice and the rule of law sector.”
In the following video, ZwaKala staff share reactions to their work:
How does this fit into the EU’s wider support for LBGTI Communities’ Human Rights?
In 2013 the EU adopted Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all human rights by LGBTI persons, which pave the way for EU action at all levels. Fighting discrimination against LGBTI persons is also a priority under the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2015-19. There is still a crucial need to change discriminatory laws, design legal and public policies respecting human rights, provide direct support to LGBTI persons whose rights have been violated and change public perceptions. This is why the EU has been supporting more than 39 projects in 28 countries since 2013.
These include projects to strength the capacity of local CBOs and CSOs to document and report human rights violations of LGBTI persons; build knowledge on human rights; change perceptions and fight prejudice; and advocate for change. Building regional networks and stimulating exchanges between anti-discrimination organisations working on sexual orientation in Asia and Africa is a priority.
The EU is for instance supporting a specific regional project in Francophone West Africa with the NGO Institut Panos Afrique de l'Ouest (IPAO) and its five local partners in Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal to raise "voices and ways against homophobia”. It aims to support and train local actors to counter homophobic prejudice through multimedia communication including press articles, video testimonies, web documentaries, exhibitions and briefings.