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Remembering the brave genius of June Jordan

Today, and increasingly these days, I find myself turning to June Jordan, Jamaican, American, feminist, essayist, activist. I read and re-read her, but today I turn to Jordan’s poem written for and dedicated to (activist) South African women, first read in 1978, first published in 1980.

“we are the ones we have been waiting for” is the final line of this poem. African American women working in other artistic genres returned to Jordan’s words: Sweet Honey in the Rock turned the phrase into a song. Alice Walker wrote a book with that title. An on and on, with the attribution eventually disappearing (yes! appropriation).

In my country I hear it used against the very people Jordan wrote it for, by some who claim revolutionary Black political stance but act hatefully and violently against women and gender non-conforming people. Black radical, feminist, bisexual Jordan must be turning in her grave.

The poem is hopeful and I think we need to see this vision of ourselves, and the women we come from, more urgently now than ever, as South African women. We can be the change. As a South African woman and as a feminist at that, I think we are up against some tough times. The backlash is more virulent than ever and we urgently need new tools – and re-energising – to deal with the insane percentages of femicide, battery, sexual harrassment, rape and other sexual assault. I think the increasingly brazen, theatrical and spectacular expression of violence against women in South African society is directly linked to how many legal and occupational gains South African women have made. The backlash is only as strong as the feminist successes it seeks to obliterate.

Yet, in the last few months, as I speak to various people engaged in feminist work across the spectrum of South African society, I hear despair and frustration. The SA feminist movement will not collapse, but I know that we need to urgently re-craft our tools. I often feel these days that I am being metaphorically bludgeoned with a phallus on my head, to paraphrase feminist poet genius Lebogang Mashile. 

Here it is, from her collection Passion, published by Beacon Press in 1980, June Jordan’s

Poem for South African Women

Commemoration of the 40,000 women and children who, 
August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against 
the “dompass” in the capital of apartheid. Presented at The 
United Nations, August 9, 1978.

Our own shadows disappear as the feet of thousands
by the tens of thousands pound the fallow land
into new dust that
rising like a marvelous pollen will be
even as the first woman whispering
imagination to the trees around her made
for righteous fruit
from such deliberate defense of life
as no other still
will claim inferior to any other safety
in the world

The whispers too they
intimate to the inmost ear of every spirit
now aroused they
carousing in ferocious affirmation
of all peaceable and loving amplitude
sound a certainly unbounded heat
from a baptismal smoke where yes
there will be fire

And the babies cease alarm as mothers
raising arms
and heart high as the stars so far unseen
nevertheless hurl into the universe
a moving force
irreversible as light years
traveling to the open 

And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
if necessary
even under the sea

we are the ones we have been waiting for

It’s Black History Month in Jordan’s country this month, so we have a fitting set of confluences.

Artists are a gift to treasure

This is the original copy sent for my City Press column for Sunday, 07 March 2010. It is longer than the published version and is my formulation (not the edited, slightly altered version published on p__ of the paper, and available for perusal *here*)

I have a vested interest in the controversy over Minister Lulu Xingwana and the Innovative Women exhibition curated by Bongi Bengu last August. I have written on Zanele Muholi’s photographs before, and find Nandipha Mntambo’s work so thought-provoking that as I wrote the catalogue essay for the exhibition, I vowed to spend more time writing on her. I have also written on Bongi Bengu, the curator and an artist in the show. I have no intention of stopping.

These artists present us with a vision that does not allow us to sit comfortably with our prejudices. Even those of us who admire their work are provoked, challenged, amused, and forced to grow. The issues of conflict, death, erasure that they explore are not easy to digest. Their work also is about love, joy, discovery and breathtaking beauty. Creative artists, whether they use film, photographs, visual strategies, or writing, do not exist merely for our entertainment, although this is often the condescending view that artists exist for our distraction.

But when did South Africans forget that art is political? That the apartheid state persecuted, exiled and killed artists precisely because it recognised how powerful creative mediums are in shifting thinking? Muholi, Mntambo and the other Black women artists at Constitution Hill last August presented us with courageous invitations to look at the textures of gender in contemporary Southern Africa. Muholi and Mntambo are two of the most exciting and talented artists working today anywhere in the world. You don’t have to take my word for this. Google them and see what others, who know more about art than I do, have said as they bestowed prestigious awards to these women for their staggering talent.

One of the wisest women in recent history, the Afro-Caribbean poet, Audre Lorde once said “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. Black women are told every day in this country about which ways are appropriate for us to love, dress, speak, think and generally live our lives. Many times the self-appointed custodians of African culture pretend it is a static entity that they have exclusive copyright over. African women may be the majority group in this country, but, yes, the word culture is used against us every day by patriarchal men and women who know how effective it is as a tool. Nandipha Mntambo’s work shows some of the ways in which different societies use extensive symbolism – cows, hide, mythology – to do this complicated work of reminding women of our place. These are other people’s fantasies about women, not mine, not Mntambo’s as her visual language shows. Here, she agrees with Lorde and decides to move far beyond responding and resisting to create another vision of Black women’s imagination and lives.

Black lesbians are told every single day that they may not exist in South Africa. They are killed, raped, mocked, expelled and otherwise violated. We all know this because Black lesbians would not let us continue in our ignorance. At the same time, pictures of Black lesbians are very popular for pornographic reasons – for the gratification of men and straight women who refuse to see and live with real lesbians in the world. Zanele Muholi’s work is the answer to this ugly world of useful Black lesbians in fantasy. She asks us questions like “what do you see when you look at me?” and “what do you choose not to”? In her images, the loving Black women are there for themselves – visible, daring, complicated – and not for our gratification or distraction.

Muholi, Mntambo and the other artists in this exhibition are a gift we should treasure: genius, pained and beautiful. To call it pornography and immoral is an act of violent disregard for their talent, their imagination and their humanity.

Angry for Eudy Simelane

Earlier this week, the men accused of killing Eudy Simelane appeared in front of a Springs magistrate again. One accused was set free, while the remaining four will appear on trial in February 2009. Eudy’s case is both commonplace and a spotlight on the plight of Black lesbians in South Africa. Oftentimes when feminists speak of the ways in which violence is endemic and how women in this country are held in a state of constant self-censorship, we are told we are over-reacting. Yes, the previous president (Mbeki) was one of those people who was not entirely able to deal with the fact of the very real siege that characterises how South African public and private spaces are gendered. Even more sinister responses usually remind us that the women with the loudest mouths are professionals and therefore out of touch with the reality of most women in South Africa.

This is a red herring. All women in South Africa are under threat of violence. Constantly. Yes, some are more endangered than others. Nobody seems to be as reguarly attacked as Black lesbians. The fact of their professionalism, the fact of their visibility is no protection. Eudy Simelane’s attack proves this, in case there ever was any real doubt. Ms Simelane was a visible woman, a player in the women’s national soccer team, Banyana Banyana, and yet she was not safe from the violent hatred that is the shadow haunting those women who love themselves and other women like them unapologetically. In a twisted irony, she was killed the day after our 14th Freedom Day as a nation.

I despair when I note how little media attention the ongoing postponements attract, how few published commentaries there are on the scourge of what Wendy Isaack previously dubbed “curative rapes”, but which increasingly are being called “corrective rapes” and murders of Black lesbians in South Africa today.

Yes, her case has been postponed yet again. One of the accused has been let free even as a cloud hangs over his face and involvement. Perhaps he will turn valuable State witness.

Today, again, my thoughts turn to Eudy as well as the many Black lesbians whose names are known and not known to me, who have been raped and otherwise violently attacked for loving women. I turn to the ones who survived and those who have not. My thoughts turn to the women who have been raped already – lesbian and not – in the time it has taken me to type this entry.

And I am angry on their behalf – at the society that lets it happen, that continues to bring up young men who think women’s bodies are their entitlement, at the police officers, lawyers, magistrates and judges who let them get away while they secondary victimise the survivors, at my fellow feminists who would rather talk about broad gender based violence than use our collective voices always to say lesbians are under constant attack in our midst.

Eudy Simelane case update 7 Oct 08

7 October 2008


The five men arrested for killing Eudy Simelane on 28 April 2008 re-appeared today at the Springs Magistrate Court.

Before Magistrate Mr. J. Mokoma, the Springs Prosecutor Mr E. Maloba presented the instructions from Mr E.M. Matsane of Transvaal Director of Public Prosecution in Pretoria as follows:

i. All charges against Tsepo Pitja – accused number 4 – are withdrawn and he is free to go;

ii. The four co-accused to appear for trial at the Delmas Regional Court on 11, 12 and 13 February 2009;

iii. They are remanded to stay in custody until the conclusion of trial; and

iv. That the charges against them include murder, two counts of robbery and ‘other’.

The news was met with mixed emotions. Many of the activists who gathered to picket outside the court expressed outrage that Tsepo Pitja, who was one of the men who picked Eudy up from her home the Sunday before her body was found, had been set free. One activist who did not want to be named cried saying “he knows most of us. He is a known rapist and now we are scared that he will be outside and target us like they did to Eudy.”

According to Phumi Mtetwa of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, she understood that the DPP saw no sufficient information to charge Pitja and that he would collaborate with the State during trial. She welcomed that the case has been referred to a high court but that it would have been better if the dates were sooner.

Captain Dube of the Kwa-Thema Police re-assured picketers that the State’s case and investigation had been thoroughly handled and that these developments are only to ensure that justice is served and that the perpetrators are tried and convicted.

The family was saddened by the release of Pitja, a known neighbor to them, who they had seen as key into the events that led to the killing of their daughter. Mrs. Mally Simelane said that she just wants this trial to be over and have closure for her family. “God is there and knows the killers. They must go to trial and be sentenced for many years. My daughter is gone but I know that she will not rest until she has her justice.”

Despite these developments LGBT activists are committed to organise activities in and around Kwa-Thema with the Equality Project, local structures such as the ANC, TAC and others to continue raising awareness on hate crimes, violence and the rights of everyone to live in safe communities.

Mobilizations to ensure that masses also attend the trial next year are underway and a possibility to bring an Amicus Curie (friend of the court application) is being considered.

Eudy Simelane – Black lesbian killed – march



Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Ndaba Tree; Kwa-Thema Civic Centre Behind the Clinic @ 10h00

Act against hate crimes

The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project together with Kwa-Thema based community structures, social movements and the residents will hold a public march on September 10, 2008 from 10h00 to 14h00 to raise their voices against the delays in the court proceedings looking into the murder of Eudy Simelane.

The day after Freedom Day, 28 April 2008, Eudy Simelane, a woman, a lesbian, a national Banyana Banyana soccer player and activist was tragically killed in her KwaThema home township for who she was. She was killed because she is a lesbian. Her killing is an act of homophobia! Homophobia is the hatred and fear of lesbian and gay people. Her killing represents the violation of many basic human rights, as suffered by lesbians, gays, transgender people, people living with HIV/AIDS, women, girls, foreign national and others!

During the last three months the case has suffered delays attributed to three State agents: the Director of Public Prosecution, the SAPS and the Prosecutor. We demand a thorough investigation; raise concerns over the DPP in referring the matter to the High Court; and insist that the Prosecutor make efficient consultations with the other two agents.




For further information you can contact:

Pretty Makhanya Phumi Mtetwa

076 226 4795 072 795 9194