Dokumentation Being queer in South Africa

Gespräch und Konzert mit den LGBTIQA Künstler*Innen UMLILO und Stash Crew aus Südafrika



Skalitzer Str. 6
10999 Berlin




Britta Becker,


UMLILO, Whyt Lyon, Missy Phayafly, Kieron Jina, Jörn Jan Leidecker, Johanna Bussemer


Geschlechterverhältnisse, Ungleichheit / Soziale Kämpfe, Soziale Bewegungen / Organisierung, Afrika, Südliches Afrika

Was bedeutet es eigentlich queer zu sein? Im südafrikanischen Kontext bekommt die queere Lebensphilosophie eine ganz besondere Relevanz.

Diesen Sommer waren Joni Barnard, UMLILO and Whyt Lyon, drei interdisziplinäre, südafrikanische Avantgarde Künstler*Innen und Musiker*Innen auf Einladung der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung zu Gast in Berlin. Im Gespräch mit uns erzählen sie sehr persönlich was es heißt, als queere aber gleichzeitig Schwarze oder Weiße Person in Südafrika zu leben. Sie üben Kritik an der Heteronormativität, auch in der eigenen Community und sprechen über das Konzept von Intersektionalität und den transformatorischen Ansatz queerer Lebensweisen.

Interview lesen

I would like to talk about the conflict between theory and practice in South Africa. Giving the very progressive legal framework of the South African and the laws being far more progressive than what we have in Germany, e.g. the legal equality of same sex marriages which is still brand new for us in Germany is existing in South Africa since 20 years but still the reality is that the legal framework does not translate into reality. There is a lot of exclusion and also violence against LGBTIQ people in South Africa and there is no legal protection against it.

What does it mean being queer and at the same time being black or white in South Africa and what do you think why is it like this?

Joni Barnard (JB):

Our constitution is so progressive but it is also an experiment. We have to explore our constitution more as a society, I mean we have to figure out what it actually means. The majority of the people are not so well informed about what their actual day to day rights are.

Whyt Lyon (WL):

We are really lucky to got the types of rights that we have, in particular LGBT rights in our constitution during the transition but a big part of it was because the gay community was so vocal in the anti-apartheid movement. Some people even say it was almost by luck that those kind of rights came about. But I think it is also important to understand that you have that incredibly progressive constitution that was created and is no being inherited by a society that for hundreds of years has suffered from violent exploitation, subjugation, separation and exclusion. They created a document that kind of enshrines a whole lot of rights of how we want to go forward but this doesn’t really translate to the culture that has been perpetuated for so long. So the constitution always becomes like a goal and a goal that is supposed to functioning as it should. And I think it is also up to us to try to create our identity in post apartheid South Africa. The exploration of the constitution is probably the way how we figure that out and will also help in creating precedent.


But it also might be a generational thing. South Africa is still very much dealing with the past -  with colonization with apartheid, and a very conservative society that is super religious. And there are so many things attached to it that prevent us from moving forward and I think that’s one of those things we have to give a time and see how it progresses. Our generation is maybe the beginning of that change because we are the ones who were old enough when the constitution came in but we were too young to understand it. So we are the ones who grew up before and after. So it would be interesting to see what our generation does to make sure that this transition really happens.

Do you feel or experience differences, changes or improvements? When you read or hear about violence, e.g. like corrective rapes one can get the impression that it is getting more and more brutal.


The issue of violence is huge in our country but again it’s also historic. For me it's systemic. It is in reaction to slavery, in reaction to colonization, in reaction to apartheid, in reaction to masculinization.


And also that blackness gets painted as blackness, there's no nuance in understanding it culturally.


Part of our work is the fight against the polarization of society because that is very much part of our historical narrative.


We have been inspired by the “fees must fall”-movement where this is happening on the ground by the students. Our role as generation in between is the role of deconstructing such things. The constitution was created, we moved into that thing called rainbow nation and everybody thought it was as simple as that but actually it requires a lot of deconstruction about what it means to be South African; white, black, rich, poor, straight or trans whatever it might be. It's so diverse. It requires everybody to do this work to figure out what it means to be South African what it means to be diverse in culture. And that is exactly where the queer narrative is very exciting because it is not about othering it is about including. That is our ethos our narrative.

Is it easier to live according to this ethos or narrative from a White person's or a Black person's background?


That's privilege that's what white privilege is. In our context white privilege is still very much related to resources, where are you allowed to express yourself in a more free way, access to education, access to space.


The feeling in South Africa is that when you are black it's very difficult to escape of the full reality of being black. So when you have moved out of a township or when you have traveled or if you are educated there is always an aspect that pulls you back down, ‘so this is where you are as a black South African’. I mean that is changing but still a lot of South Africans do not really feel free because it’s almost as if you have moved from one trap to the next. I can only speak for my family who came from a very poor background during apartheid and then post apartheid became more middle class but hadn’t foreseen the trappings about being middle class and the constant need to make up for time lost. Everybody now struggles more financially probably even more than they did 30 years ago because they didn’t foresee the trappings of a capitalist society. So it is like South Africa moved from that one system where you have been oppressed to another oppressive system which is capitalism…


…and religion as well. You have a lot of people who are incredibly religious and they are trying to melt their traditional believes into this very white and colonial religion that still dominates and prevails our society. Maybe I am saying this as an outsider but this colonization that takes place is also a colonization of culture where people are forced or willingly adopting that religion because it allows them access to a certain privilege. Then you have capitalism that is coming in after that and now you have a whole disenfranchised African culture, that was largely based on communal engagement and support and all those kinds of things that is completely becoming now an individualized society. This religion is actually a white religion, I really struggle with that. I cannot understand why people can follow Christianity in this context, to me that’s absurd.


It’s also about whiteness. When you have a society that pushes certain rhetoric that whiteness is the aspirational thing, it becomes a psychological pattern that takes generations to get rid of. When you look at the South African society now what a lot of people aspire is the idea of a western model. To have a job, a car and capital, wear certain clothes, have 2.5 kids, a landrover and a white picket fence. When I was younger there was this need for my family for me to go to a certain school and to get a certain kind of education and all of that and even so it didn’t understand it at that time now I can also critique it. They were trying to push me for that kind of human being and when I did not become that it became problematic. Because there is also something called black tax, where if you come from an oppressive system the only capital you have is to have as many kids as you can and then hope that some of them maybe get educated, get good jobs and then push the family forward. So that is what a lot of black families had to rely on in order to move forward.  And now the feeling of being disenfranchised is due to the fact that that was a promise that no one knew it could work. The idea behind was `we did everything according to the book, if you get educated you get a job and then you can pay and you can support your family you can do all of this.’ But now we have one of the highest unemployment rates and everybody feels disenfranchised and duped in a way. That is the reason why you have a very angry society that lashes out in different ways.

It is interesting when you look at violence against women in our society, it is difficult to understand because women largely be the ones in South African who hold things together, things who are falling apart in times of war or crisis but this dynamic shifted with the liberation process with more violence against women than it was before. That’s interesting.

Is black and white also an issue in joint struggles and movements, e.g. campaigns, the Johannesburg pride, the fees must fall  movement?


It depends in what kind of context you are in. The commercial narrative is quite separated.


That is also an issue where our government learnt a lot from the apartheid government. The “fees must fall”-movement for example, especially in its first manifestations where people were more united was so multi-cultural and there was a lot of unity amongst the youths. It was very diverse but they were also consciously questioning this diversity meaning sitting with the ramifications of the past but making peace with them, accepting them and not shying away from them. But our government knows very well how to create disunity. So they plant in instigators to create violence and to create discourse and then delegitimize the protest by derailing it.


It is a difficult question because we are one of those countries who tried but didn’t heal and we did not have time to collectively heal and deal with the past. So after many years of being separated by race and cultural identity still all those effects haven’t been dealt with in our modern society. Race is still a very sensitive subject that whenever people are in a room and the race subject comes around it immediately derails everything and the government knows that. When the ANC came into power they used the fear that the white government can come back, I heard this from my grandmother and there was this fear that the apartheid government could come back one day if they vote for anybody else and if they have an independent way of thinking. So now 25 years later when the ANC feels the power slipping away from them they basically using whatever they can to stay in power and enforcing that fear. There is that rhetoric of the white monopoly which the Zuma fraction is pushing hard since a year or two.


I saw it retrospectively, the focus on nation building and the euphoria on the rainbow nation.  And slowly when the 90s went along, well our generation as the “rainbow disillusion generation” we started seeing, it’s like a dream it’s not real yet. The rainbow dream is to be untied in our diversity and that’s still our goal. But we had to realize that this was a dream. Mandela did a very good job, in some ways in other ways not, but we needed that, we needed a new identity. We were so fractioned and he spent his whole entire term in creating this new South African identity but part of that journey is the deconstruction of it. To realize that free Mandela and end of apartheid didn’t create a solution. It created opportunities to create a dream and from there we realized that the dream wasn’t actually lived yet and that we now have to figure out how it is to live this dream.


It’s the same with the question of decolonization. No one knows what decolonization looks like. We can’t take a paradigm and put it there. That again is hard work every day, to figure out what it means to ask these very hard questions and to not shy away from them and I think that’s definitely what a lot of white people have to do globally, in South Africa and in Europe. A lot of white people hide behind their privilege. They do not want to think about it, take up responsibility or realize that ‘I have because a lot of people don’t have’, that it is very much interconnected.


You already mentioned the queer narrative and talked a lot about different identities. I want to focus a bit more on this intersectionality.  What is the queer approach for you?


Queerness became a term that united us in our diversity, in our difference. The important words for me are difference, inclusion, self expression, a kind of an exploration of your identity. That’s also what is lacking in the white context especially in South Africa, the lack of self-interrogation or reflection and that comes with privilege because when you are always in the majority and you always hold power you never have to question your position and I think as queer people we always have to question our position, we always have to figure out how it is, who we are in relation to the dominant discourse. 

Initially the gay liberation movement became a counter narrative to heterosexuality. But the truth lies somewhere in between. For me those types of cultures became almost counter narratives opposed to narratives that were really trying to explore identity.

What is so amazing in South Africa is that there is so much potential for this queer exploration to really deal with intersectionality of race, class, gender sexuality, like all of them have a space where they can be explored and discussed. I think as long as the queer movement deals with inclusivity,  love, listening and conversation it might take a while but it is might be the way for our continuous search for a solution to create the kind of a world we want to exist in.


Queer becomes the platform that provides a little bit of a freedom. For a lot of people it is more inclusive and it has the potential to become a sort of prototype of what the future could look like because it is not so much focused on the binary but on what makes you different…its another way of thinking.


The LGBTI or lesbian and gay community, from my point of view and I think that’s not only in the South African context but also globally, is so reactionary. It’s like thesis and antithesis. The thesis is heteronormativity and the antithesis is dislike.

So heteronormativity is also dominating same sex relationships?


Yes that’s exactly what it is. Binary is all about power…. When I first came out it was in the lesbian community and I couldn’t understand why I always was feeling so othered in the lesbian community. Othered in a hetero community and then again so othered in a lesbian community because I was not fitting into these binary roles.  Lesbian and gay culture focuses a lot on sex on the act of sexual practice. I am lesbian because I am having sex with another woman. And again its becoming the weird narrative that you are dominated by your sexual identity and that’s so bizarre because its only one small aspect of your identity actually, maybe an important one but very small…so when I started I was looking for an alternative. I cannot exist in this space of continued othering and that’s when the idea of being queer and queerness was exciting for me because… what I find interesting about queer people and our community is that we are also so tired of fighting an old system. We are much more interested in creating new spaces which are much more playful, much softer and much more inclusive.  It is more an inclusive space that has something to do with sexuality but not only it is about an idea of living an alternative.


“YoSissy” is a great example of that because as a festival is really encompasses of what queer could be. It is a party but it is really diverse, the acts are very diverse, it’s very pro femme, its non-binary, also kids were running around and it was a non-judgmental space, a safe space with mutual respect and mutual respect of people’s identities and boundaries.


I think it’s because it’s a space that’s not predominantly driven by sex and sexual identity and that’s what I find so exhausting about gay clubs. It is like a meat market…


I think where intersectionality comes in is where my freedom can be your freedom and I think that is the duty of modern politics realizing hat there is not just one door. There are so many more doors that open so many more doors. Everybody should stop that feeling that sort of repression to do this and to play a certain role.


People need to understand that they are changeable that culture is changing. For me culture is always changing it is transformative it’s not stagnant.


You are allowed to transform constantly. In a very conservative lesbian culture you are either butch or femme and it is a problem if you kiss a boy on a dancefloor. It’s like in a queer space, you are allowed this freedom to transform. …


This queer movement is very young I thinks its becoming a conscious manifestation now over the last 3-4 years and its just starting really to take shape in the Southern hemisphere and maybe it is the natural progression of thought from a very closed heteronormativity and binary culture. It’s the realization that such things do not work for us.


We are lost in heteronormativity. A lot of countries are fighting for same sex marriage and the whole rhetoric is we are the same as you. I think that’s also a bit problematic. The gay and lesbian movement has forgotten about trance rights and its request for normalization has gone so far into heteronormativity that the rest of the community is left behind. It feels like the 90s or 80s when there was the rhetoric to push normalization because it was helping the majority of the world to understand a small group of people by saying look I am the same as you. Now it doesn’t make sense anymore because why should we fight for acceptance for something.


You fight so hard to buy in to a narrative that is oppressing you in the first place.


If I look at the gay movements its about legitimizing relationships for so long. Everything was under cover, people were having sex in parks it was not like a real tangible relationship, it was seen as a mental disorder that these people aren’t having meaningful relationships and I think a lot of them when they were first coming out wanted to model the heteronormative monogamy as a relationship structure and as a legal structure whatever it might be that legitimizes the value of their relationship. And also for my parents it would have been easier if I was gay but I still ticked all the hetero boxes, 2.5 kids, I still got married, I still have a nice white wedding and fit all of those things.

The LGBTI community has been oppressed for so long that they try to model all the relationships or legitimize their relationships

And now? What do you think? Is it taking up?


We always say that South Africa is the first one to push the envelope and the last one to open it.

Das Gespräch führte Britta Becker.

Being queer in South Africa

Discussion and Concert (Berlin, 26.7.2017)

Discussion with Whyt Lyon, Missy Phayafly, Umlilo, Kieron Jina

Talk with Jörn Jan Leidecker and Johanna Bussemer

Concert: Umlilo and Stash Crew

Aquarium, Berlin, 26.7.2017

Im Anschluss an die Gesprächsrunde fand ein Konzert mit den Künstler*innen statt.