Remembering Eudy, KwaThema’s brightest, killed on its darkest night

Africa’s first gay-pride march occurred in Johannesburg in 1990, where Simon Nkoli, among 22 who faced treason charges in Delmas beginning in 1985, declared that he needed to feel free as a gay man in order to be free as a black man. Nkoli died of AIDS in 1998. Again in Delmas, activists now see in the Simelane case a chance to bring premeditated violence against gay women into public view. At pre-trial hearings at Springs Magistrate Court in 2008, demonstrators wore black shirts with Simelane’s name along with names of other gay women murdered in Khayelitsha—outside Cape Town—Ladysmith (KwaZulu-Natal) and Soweto. “Not Just Faces and Vaginas,” read one of the stark block-letter placards.

Efforts to prosecute earlier cases have encountered procedural delays, lack of investigative zeal and other barriers to holding South Africa’s legal system to the high constitutional standard. At the February trial of Mphiti, the judge declared Simelane’s sexual orientation of no significance. This past week, Circuit Court Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng asked whether “lesbian” was an appropriate word to use in court.

Eudy Simelane memorial bridge, KwaThema

The bridge constructed in Simelane’s honor near the place of her death. Gay-rights activists cleaned the field before the first anniversary of her murder and erected a wooden cross. “A fellow struggler was killed there,” writes Mtetwa of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, “for transgressing pre-assigned societal gender roles and for living openly as a non-heterosexual.” (© 2009 Laurie Adams)

“Whatever the ultimate judgment,” Mtetwa writes, “this case will leave many questions unanswered.” The public record likely will remain opaque on the motives of Simelane’s murderers. More broadly, the late Steven Biko‘s prediction that Africa would bring the world a new standard of human relations seems well beyond reach.

Work to narrow the gap between the dream of equality for gay women and reality progresses incrementally, with victories and defeats. In the wake of the Simelane and Nkosi murders, organizers announced the first gay-pride march in Ekhuruleni, the municipality containing KwaThema, on Sept 19.

But skeptics speak of institutionalized violence seeking outlet in times of economic disparities. One bleak assessment observes that the worst phase in South Africa’s xenophobic rioting, killing 62, began two weeks after Simelane’s murder.

When will South Africa achieve its after-tears time?

Update

The conclusion of Simelane’s trial Sept 22 in Delmas attracted worldwide attention. The BBC, Guardian and New York Times all reported on Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng’s judgment:

Eudy Simelane suffered a brutal, undignified death. She was stripped naked, stabbed, assaulted, raped. What more indignity can a person endure?

Themba Mvubu, 24, received a life sentence. Khumbulani Magagula, 22, and Johannes Mahlangu, 18, were acquitted, although Mokgoathleng warned of God’s judgment for their presence that night. The judge concluded that Simelane was known to her killers and was murdered in order “to obliterate the evidence. It is a sad, sad state of affairs that a person can be killed for such a flimsy reason.”

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