Growing up in 80s Soweto, Beverley Ditsie was immersed in the struggle against apartheid. But she knew racial oppression was only part of the fight – and organised the first Pride march in Africa.

AAMNA MOHDIN

BEVERLEY Ditsie first understood what the word “gay” meant while listening to Boy George. She was a teenager in the South African township of Soweto in the early 1980s, obsessed with the UK’s New Romantic movement.

In South Africa, people were speculating about the singer’s sexuality, as they were all over the world, and when Ditsie heard that to be gay was to love someone of the same sex, she felt a shock of joy.

“I remember this confusion that I’d always had; I’d been trying to work out how I’d get over this thing. I always thought I was the only one,” says Ditsie. “I thought: ‘I’m just gay. Oh my God! I’m just gay, everything is OK. I’m just gay.’”

For a fleeting moment, Ditsie felt free – something that was almost taboo in a country in turmoil as a result of apartheid. “As a child, you grow up being told you can’t use the word ‘free’ or ‘freedom’, because then you’re a terrorist and so will be taken, beaten, arrested, killed.”

In the excitement of the moment, she ran to tell her family, who were having Sunday lunch, that she, too, was gay. She expected them to be pleased. “The look on their faces kind of said: maybe not,” she says with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.

Undeterred, Ditsie and her queer friends in the neighbourhood would dress in the most flamboyant colours, mimicking the style of Boy George’s band, Culture Club. “There was a big group of teenagers who were 13, 14, 15 years old, but you couldn’t tell what gender any of us were,” she says. In the middle of town, they would walk up and down the streets, daring people to say something. “We call those our first Pride,” she says.

This was not the first time Ditsie had found a way to escape the strict gender roles of the time. From a young age, she knew she wanted to be a star, to emulate the success of her mother, a famous singer who regularly went on tour. She became a child actor, but was always cast as a boy. This began when her mother was cast as the lead in a TV drama and there was a need for a child who matched her skin tone and looks. To the production company, Ditsie looked like a boy and so was cast as her son. Ditsie loved playing male characters.

“I was more me at that time than I’ve ever been,” she says.

“Going back to school was weird. It was almost a double life, because here I am now back in school wearing these dresses that I hate, being treated like a girl that I thought I wasn’t.”

On her 16th birthday, Ditsie decided to have a coming-out party. One of her friends there told her about Simon Tseko Nkoli, the gay anti-apartheid campaigner. Nkoli had faced the death penalty with 21 other political leaders in the Delmas treason trial, but had been acquitted and released. Ditsie went along to a meeting that Nkoli held at Wits University, in Johannesburg, on a Saturday in September. The teenager had begun to feel something was missing in the anti-apartheid struggle. “Their entire language centred around the emasculation of black men and what freedom for them would mean.” But, she says: “Freedom for black men meant oppression for me, because they were very clear and articulate in their language that as soon as freedom comes, they would ‘get their women back’.”

Nkoli on the other hand, “was up there in the front talking about the rights of gay people. That is something I’d never heard before. And coming from somebody who was also a legitimate, anti-apartheid activist … it legitimised all my struggles and all my feelings. For the first time, it embodied what I’d always thought freedom would mean – because for the first time he included my queerness in the equation. So freedom was not just going to mean freedom for me as a black person; it would also be freedom for me as a woman, as a gay woman.”

She says that Nkoli, who was imprisoned on Robben Island with leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), was so successful because he made the political personal. “Robben Island is also known as the University of the ANC, because it’s the place where a lot of the political leaders who were imprisoned got their degrees. And there was a lot of political education that was going on,” Ditsie says. “Simon kept dropping in sexual orientation and gender equality in those conversations. The political education that would then continue would slowly include sexual orientation just because Simon was there – and he kept saying: ‘If we’re going to create a new constitution in this country, are you willing to exclude me?’

“He managed to convince a lot of his fellow inmates – and the rest of the political leadership – of the value of recognising all humans.”

The pair became close friends, with Nkoli becoming Ditsie’s mentor. She loved exploring his bookcase, which she describes as a treasure. Through it, she learned about other black lesbian activists such as the US writers and thinkers Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith: “My world was being cracked wide open.” The pair, together with Linda Ngcobo, founded the Gay and Lesbian Organization of Witwatersrand (Glow). The organisation, and particularly Nkoli, was instrumental in enshrining protection for the LGBTQ+ community in South Africa’s new constitution. It was the first country to do so.

In 1990, the group decided to organise a Pride march – which had never been done before in South Africa, or indeed in Africa. The night before, Ditsie was listening to a news bulletin on the radio when the march was announced. “I remember the commentator saying: ‘I hope they’ll be safe,’” Ditsie says. The implication that there would be violence terrified the 19-year-old. The organisers even had brown paper bags at the ready – for those who wanted to march, but were too scared to show their face.

On the morning of the march, at about 9.30am, she says only 20 people had arrived in the meeting hall. She grew worried, fearing the low numbers made them more vulnerable to attack. As the hours went by, however, people trickled in. By the time they marched, there were more than 100 people. By its end, there were about 800 protesters; not a single one wore a brown paper bag.

“At one point, I walked away and burst into tears,” says Ditsie. “I cried like a little baby from just the joy of it. I felt like I’d just been born.” Among the chanting participants, some were screaming at the top of their lungs. “I think a lot of us were screaming because of that realisation that we are out in the street saying: ‘We’re here, we’re queer, we’re everywhere!’” Ditsie says. It was a powerful refusal to live in fear in the shadows, something she describes as “half-living”. Decades later, she still does not believe anything will match the euphoria of that day.

Yet her joy had a high price. Soon after the march, which was televised, her family started receiving threats. “As much as I regretted the danger to myself, more than that I regretted the danger to my mom and my grandma and my sister. And the rest of my extended family members, who are constantly being asked: ‘How do you allow this?’” Her family, particularly her grandmother – the matriarch of her home and neighbourhood, who had accepted and affirmed her identity in private – defended her in public.

She had lived through horrifying violence with her family before. In June 1976, when she was five, she was standing in the family yard in Soweto when she spotted a fire down the road. Her mother, Eaglette Ditsie, simply said: “It’s begun.” She then took Ditsie and her sister, Teboho Letsheleha, inside. “I’ll never forget that,” says Ditsie. She could see teargas and hear gunshots and women screaming. They waited for her grandmother, who lived with them and helped to raise the sisters, to arrive, then boiled buckets of water for protection in case the violence reached them.

The fire was from protests; students from schools across Soweto were out in the street following a decree from the apartheid government forcing school pupils to learn some subjects in Afrikaans. Police opened fire on the children, killing at least 176 people.

A picture of the lifeless body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson would be seen across the world.

Apartheid was part of everyday life. Ditsie remembers the time she and her sister tried to get on a bus after attending Saturday school. The driver allowed Ditsie to get on, but barred her darker-skinned sister. “We walked in that rain,” Ditsie says. “I remember looking at her wondering if it’s the rain or if it’s tears.”

Her earliest memories are peppered with incidents that reiterated the simple, yet devastating, message that she was at the bottom of society’s hierarchy. “My activism was born of being aware of all those things,” she says. Ditsie and other members of her family could have been considered “coloured”, which would have meant access to better work and salaries, as well as better schools, hospitals and transport systems. But her family always rejected this categorisation and refused to move from Soweto – which had been created by the South African government to keep black people away from the white suburbs – and refused to tick “coloured” in their identity documents. “For me, freedom meant so much more than just my skin tone, race and culture. It meant so much more.”

In 1986, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, Ditsie joined the Student Representative Council, a group at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement in Soweto. “Children were beginning to disappear. You’d never know whether it’s because these are people who escaped into the underground army, or were caught by the security police and murdered,” she says. Her grandmother and mother were scared for her, but she was adamant that she had to be part of the struggle.

Ditsie’s bravery continued in her fight for gay rights, but after the success of the Pride march she gradually began to feel disenchanted with Glow. Today, intersectionality – the idea that different forms of discrimination can overlap and compound each other – is a widespread, if sometimes contested, idea. While Ditsie may not have known the phrase at the time, she always knew it was the key to toppling oppressive regimes. As a gay, black woman, she says: “The word might be new, but our realities have always been intersectional.”

Yet not everyone in Glow seemed to understand this – and lesbian issues, she felt, were being ignored. “I remember at one meeting saying: ‘Why don’t we start with the lesbian issues?’ Then being told: ‘No, those are not as important.’” Even when she raised the alarming news that lesbians were being attacked, raped and murdered, she was sidelined. “I would constantly say: ‘Something else is going on here that is over and above the level of discrimination that gay men face.’ And again, I was disregarded.” The last straw was when, in 1995, she was invited to the fourth UN women’s conference, in Beijing. She was told by Nkoli that it did not have anything to do with Glow or the struggle. “I knew it was time to move on.” She did not speak to him for nearly two years.

‘The word might be new, but our realities have always been intersectional.’ Photograph: Lauren Mulligan/The Guardian

At the conference, the lesbian caucus was suddenly told that someone could address the UN for five minutes. At the time, homosexuality was still being described as a western invention, “so, in that room, we were quite clear that it cannot be somebody American or Brit. And they cannot be white.” Ditsie stepped up, telling the assembled delegates: “If the World Conference on Women is to address the concerns of all women, it must similarly recognise that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of basic human rights.” The speech marked the first time the UN had been addressed on the need to enshrine LGBTQ+ rights in equality laws.

Yet Ditsie wanted her message to reach ordinary people as well as politicians. In the late 90s, she took part in a South African reality TV show called Livewire – Communities. Eight people from across the country lived together for six months. In one particularly tense scene, a white, male cast member told her: “I used to beat up gays, because as far as I’m concerned they don’t belong on Earth.” In reply, Ditsie passionately explained that she was not going anywhere and likened homophobia to the prejudice that the black community continued to face.

Why did she agree to such an extreme experiment? It was the lesson she had learned from Nkoli. “People are afraid of what they don’t know,” she says. “Put a face and humanity behind what it is they don’t know and be there to answer their questions. You will have a reaction that’s a hell of a lot better.” By the end of the show, she and the male participant were friends – he even gave her his guitar. But she admits that putting herself on the frontline again and again has taken a significant toll on her mental health.

In 1998, at the age of 41, Nkoli died from Aids. The pair reconciled after Nkoli called her one afternoon inviting her to Glow’s 10th anniversary party. “Sometimes forgiveness comes in a phone call that says: ‘Hi, I’m having dinner, you want to come?’” In 2002, she created a moving documentary, entitled Simon and I, about their lives and activism. “He taught me to be true to self,” she says. It’s a legacy that she upholds today.

She admits she is still disappointed with the compromises made in South Africa in terms of economic equality. “I think it’s very sad that, in our quest for our own freedoms, we are so OK to be so oppressive to others.” She points to the backlash against trans rights she sees, particularly in the UK. “What kind of intersectionality do you practise that does not see the oppression of others? I am not interested in a system of hierarchy. I am interested in a system where we are equal.”

This means she is not surprised that the Black Lives Matter movement was created by queer African American women. “We are constantly the ones that are bringing issues to the fore, because we are the ones that are first affected,” she says. “The day we can say we are free, then everyone around us will also be free.”

Her struggle continues – but there is also one more personal goal: to make sure Boy George knows exactly how he changed her life. “I hope that Boy George actually checks this out!”

(SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/UK)

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