Eudy Simelane’s portrait hovers above her parents’ lounge in KwaThema.
KwaThema, South Africa | At dusk in early winter, smoke from coal fires shrouds this bustling black township in a persistent haze resembling volcanic ash.
Among slag heaps of the heavily mined East Rand, temperatures are certain to dip below freezing on a clear night toward the end of June. The corrugated-tin dwellings of KwaThema, established in 1951 to house blacks relocated from white areas southeast of Johannesburg, lack heat and electricity. So outdoor fires already have started.
The parents of the late Eudy Simelane wear hats, scarves and coats both indoors and out. Her father, Khotso, eats his evening meal beside the kitchen stove, the only heat source in the trim double-pile house. Knotted around his neck is an Arsenal scarf. “It is real,” he says, looking down and fingering the tasseled ends. Several years earlier his daughter had brought the scarf from an overseas trip with Banyana Banyana, the senior women’s national football team, for whom she was a midfielder.
The scarf is not a local product but originated in north London, an impossibly distant land from which Premiership matches would be beamed to Khotso and Mally Simelane‘s home in KwaThema’s Tornado section. Khotso watched games along with Eudy and Eudy’s brother, Bafana, on the small television in his lounge.
Eudy Simelane died on 28 Apr 08 less than 200 yards from the four-room house, behind which she lived in her own bungalow. On the Monday following Freedom Day, commemorating independent elections of 1994, police retrieved Simelane’s body from a culvert. According to a medical examiner’s report, she had been stabbed eight times in the neck, abdomen and thighs. She was 31.
Scenes from KwaThema on 29 Jun 09, including Eudy’s mother, Mally, at lower left.
Simelane’s murder numbers among a series of attempted sexual assaults and “corrective rapes” in which black South African men have targeted lesbians based on the women’s sexual preference. So says a coalition pushing government to live up to a progressive constitution that bars discrimination on grounds that include sexual orientation, conscience, belief and culture. With human rights, at least theoretically, at the center of the 15-year-old democracy, South Africa since 2005 has recognized same-sex marriages.
Since February hundreds have demonstrated outside Delmas circuit court, Mpumalanga province, famed for “treason trials” of anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s. One of the accused, Thato Mphiti, on Feb 13 received a 32-year sentence after pleading guilty to murder and to assault and robbery.
The fate of three alleged accomplices, Themba Mvubu, Khumbulani Magagula and Johannes Mahlangu, became more uncertain in late July when Mphiti recanted previous testimony and said that he had acted alone. Closing arguments have been postponed until Sept 21.
Eudy Simelane was born two months’ premature at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto on 11 Mar 1977. The hospital, with more than 3,000 beds, covering 173 acres, is the largest in the world. Complications after birth kept Eudy at hospital for several months. According to women of the family—including Eudy’s mother as well as her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Skosana, and aunt, Busi Skosana—Eudy’s early fragility resulted in special treatment. She resisted domestic routine and household chores.
“She started to kick the ball when she was crawling,” her mother told the Sowetan. As a toddler, she cried when the ball went flat. It would be years before Eudy had a regulation-size football, but, until then, starting around age five, she played street soccer with boys along a warren of alleys and side roads near her grandmother’s home.
Designers infused with idealism intended KwaThema to replicate garden cities in Europe and the United States with play areas and allotments on which families could grow produce. In reality, greenbelts sketched on planning documents became buffer zones to segregate KwaThema from Brakpan and Springs, coal- and gold-mining towns established in the late 19th century, and to limit blacks’ freedom of movement and access to opportunity. According to a history of Johannesburg-area housing, open spaces—only now being appropriated, here and there, as soccer fields as part of 2010 World Cup legacy funding—remained “undeveloped veld, dumping grounds for car wrecks and havens for vagrants and criminals.”
These brown stretches of Gauteng steppe, over which dust and haze hung low, formed the frontier of Eudy’s known world as a schoolgirl. Growing up, she stuck to routine, soccer filling gaps between school, study and sleep. Grandmother Elizabeth remembers that Eudy would present miniature match reports on return from football training. Eudy liked television and Rasta music, especially Bob Marley and Lucky Dube, a Mpumalanga musician himself murdered in 2007 in a Johannesburg suburb. Teachers at Qedusizi primary and Phulong secondary schools encouraged her athleticism. Photos from secondary school show Eudy with placid expression, hair trimmed, long-sleeve white shirt and vest covering a broad torso.
Khotso Simelane (right) wears the Arsenal scarf Eudy brought from London.
She grew to be as tall as her mother, close to 1.75m, and stout, almost the prototypical South African woman player, according to national-team manager Fran Hilton-Smith. Eudy’s world expanded on her discovery by Joseph “Skesh” Mkhonza, a former player for Kaizer Chiefs with a history of developing women footballers, including Hilton-Smith, in Gauteng. For the national side Eudy was a central midfielder, positioned in front of the defense, “very strong, very good with the head, stable, lovely girl, quiet, pleasant,” Hilton-Smith recalls.
Eudy’s attachment to football did not make full impact on the family until she received her first call-up to Banyana Banyana at 21 and began traveling across the country, throughout Africa and to tournaments and friendly matches in Europe. Women’s football in South Africa suffered the same international isolation as the men’s game with the additional handicap of gender discrimination, writes Martha Saavedra in a 2004 survey. Amateur women’s sides played curtain-raisers as early as the 1960s, but a national program for women did not start until 1993.
Eudy’s parents never saw her play for the national team. Travel times and logistics, even to Johannesburg, are prohibitive given a lack of efficient public transit. But brother Bafana, also a footballer, accompanied her to training sessions and games. Father Khotso watched her play in school and township matches.
Until her death, even after being dropped from the national-team player pool as the result of a coaching change, Eudy played for Tsakane Ladies in a neighboring township. Her devotion to football did not lessen with age. She became one of the first women in South Africa to earn refereeing certification. Following from her practice of organizing impromptu girls’ and boys’ teams in her youth, Eudy helped Mkhonza with administration of women’s soccer in Gauteng.
She was the family’s breadwinner, its center. In KwaThema she provided HIV/AIDS counseling and also worked with the handicapped. In May 08, Eudy planned to start a job with a pharmaceutical company in Pretoria.
In the end, Simelane lost her life for a mobile phone and a pair of “takkies,” black-and-white athletic shoes that one of the alleged attackers, Mvubu, according to his younger brother, wore the morning after the crime. Mvubu’s trousers contained traces of Simelane’s blood near the zipper. Simelane fought her assailants, testified the doctor who conducted the postmortem, and likely had been restrained while receiving the fatal stab wounds. The convicted killer, Mphiti, before changing his story in July also said that Simelane had recognized her murderers. In Mphiti’s words, she looked at Mvubu and said, “Themba you know me, and why do you do this?”
“She grew up here,” said Mally Simelane in June. “Everybody here in this location knows her. It was to us a shock and a surprise, ‘Why did they do this to her?’ Because if these boys have killed her, they knew her. … We never even think that she was threatened outside. Because she goes wherever she likes. She comes back at home.”
Speaking to Dipika Nath of Human Rights Watch in February, Mally said Eudy’s death had transformed her into a resource for KwaThema’s lesbian community. These lesbian daughters, rejected by their families of origin, now call her “mum.”
To those pushing to have Simelane’s case and others recognized as hate crimes, Eudy’s alleged killers were young men threatened by her gay lifestyle. She had a lesbian partner and a reputation for physical strength. Although she had only come out to her mother the year before her death, Eudy had been participating in gay-pride marches in Johannesburg. Her family had not seen pictures from these marches until the memorial service at KwaThema Central Methodist Church.
The cover of the memorial program for Nkosi. An athlete and activist for lesbian causes, Nkosi “lived a proud life,” reads the tribute inside, “transgressing all social gender norms and openly confronting the ills posed by economic exclusion.”
Close to 2,000 attended Simelane’s funeral. Similar numbers filled the service for one of Simelane’s teammates with Tsakane Ladies, who died Jun 22 as the result of internal bleeding from another KwaThema stabbing attack. The funeral program calls Girlie “S’gelane” Nkosi, 37, “arguably the most visible lesbian of Kwa-Thema” with a history of speaking out against hate crimes. Before she died, Nkosi asked that those attending the memorial sing songs from church and from the struggle against apartheid. They sang “Yonk’ indawo umzabalazo uyasivumela” (Everywhere Struggle Is Welcome) and the isiZulu hymn “Igazi Lemihlatshelo” (It Is the Blood of Sacrifices).
Cases of black-on-black violence crystallize arguments from critics who see South Africa, especially disillusioned township youth, losing touch with ideals that energized apartheid-era resistance. Townships such as KwaThema became organizational hubs during the freedom struggle, particularly in the wake of Soweto student protests in 1976. When Eudy was eight, in the winter of 1985, state security police killed seven residents participating in an anti-apartheid demonstration. Two weeks earlier, eight resistance fighters in KwaThema and nearby Duduza township died when their own hand grenades exploded. They were between 19 and 23, roughly the same age, one generation later, as the men charged in Simelane’s killing.
Also during apartheid, writes Phumzile Mtetwa of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, KwaThema helped bring the region’s gay subculture to light. KwaThema resident MaThoko, in particular, emerged as a key figure in gay and lesbian activism in the Witwatersrand. “Drag queens” walked KwaThema’s streets in the early 1980s. “Ordinary members of the Kwa-Thema community would have been perceived as ‘out of touch’ if they dared speak against gays and lesbians,” Mtetwa says.
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.
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?
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.”
The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, which has helped coordinate demonstrations on Simelane’s behalf, expressed disappointment at the two acquittals. But the project’s Phumzile Mtetwa extrapolated from the verdict that Simelane’s sexuality had been a factor in her death, even though the court would not make an explicit connection:
How did people know her in the township? She was a soccer player who was “butch” and was known. People are killed because of who they are.
Eudy’s mother, Mally, told Agence France-Presse:
Eudy liked to be a lesbian since she was small. I accepted her. I want to tell the other mothers that these are my children. They are not creatures, they are human beings. They are our children of South Africa today.
Lungile Madywabe of Johannesburg contributed reporting and interpretation.
About the trip
The tour of Cape Town and Johannesburg was arranged by the International Marketing Council of South Africa.