Water Crisis: Can Cape Town act collectively to generate a new eco-politics?

Flamingos on the Black River

A journalist sent me an email recently, asking for comment on the Cape water crisis. His email was titled *Will Cape Town survive the deadliest water crisis?* Here’s my response.

Thanks for writing. I worry about your email headline though: this is not “the deadliest” water crisis and yes of course the city can survive it, if the narrative we work with is productive. Making it about “survival” (presumably v extinction) and “the deadliest” generates scripts for individual survivalism — and therefore that kind of story becomes self-fulfilling. My PhD was on journalism and narratives of crisis and conflict in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s. I feel very strongly about the role of the media in generating responsive, responsible stories. See for example Ben Okri’s incredible booklet on stories and storytelling — “A Way Of Being Free” — where he sets out in pithy and quotable numbered phrases how we become the stories we tell ourselves. So you have a role too, in facilitating the kind of narrative that can enable collective action.

That is not, of course, to punt “sunshine journalism” or pretend that all is well, or no criticism is allowed. Far from it. This is a terrible situation, that’s arisen not only from some terrible decisions but also from a lifestyle that is the ideal of city living. Like any other terrible situation this can bring the best out of us (if we learn how to work together and transform how we live as households and as a city — a feminist ethic of care) and the worst (if we work on “my-household-uber-alles” survivalism — the patriarchal principle).

The greatest failing of the political management of the crisis so far has been the failure of leadership to offer a narrative that encourages people to pull together. But perhaps — if I think as a social scientist — that failure is not just an oversight but symptomatic of the broader problem: and that is the idea that “experts” will solve this. There are two problems with this:
* like weather forecasting in a time of climate crisis, expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable.
* Expertise that is based on the patriarchal and militaristic “command and control” is based on the idea that expertise has no limits.

Spot the loop?

As a feminist scholar who reads a lot of decolonial thinkers’ work, I think there is something very important to think about here: that both our modes of “I know everything” expertise, and modes of collective organising (command and control) — reach their limits in a time of crisis.

So experts and decision-makers have two choices: either carry on pretending to have complete expertise and have everyone but themselves see the hubris of that, or work with people to say — “look: we were totally wrong to assume that rainfall patterns would stay high. We’ve made choices in those years to spend funds on other pressing priorities (this is what they were; we will put together a commission of enquiry to try to learn what went wrong with water sciences, and /or the communications between our water expertise and decision-making.) But right now we have a crisis to solve — and we can either fight with one another, or address this using what we have learned in the past about collective action. So let’s create a water crisis committee with all public sectors involved, and create street committees on every street, and work out how we can partner together poor and rich areas so we can ensure we can get through the next 180 days together.”

The key is to move from “command and control” approaches to implementing expertise to an ethics of care, of relationships – because relationships and collective action are the only way we can do this.

South Africa in general, and Cape Town in particular, have a strong history of collective action in opposing apartheid. We need to reclaim that, and bring the best of UDF-style leadership into this. “Each one teach one”; street committees to ensure care for those on your street, and partnerships to care for sectors far away. For example, middle class and elite and working-class street committees could work together to put up a number of water filters and rain water tanks at poorer schools, or sponsor a couple of roller barrels. Or work with NGOs like Habitat for Humanity to facilitate work parties to construct compost toilets — which are NOT expensive to put up, but need to be done properly and managed well. Or churches or Rotary style organisations or specific districts could also offer a truck or sponsor truck hire for people living in areas without transport to fetch water. And yes, there will be conflicts — but if you remember the Peace Committee structures of the 1990s there were teams available to help resolve conflicts.

South Africans are incredibly divided and this kind of crisis will either force the faultlines wide open — an earthquake-style catastrophe — or offer an opportunity to step over the city’s dividing lines and start to fill the cracks.

How you do that is not via command and control relationships, but by drawing the best out of people. Encouraging relationships of care: knowing that what matters to one, matters to all. The labour power available through mass mobilisation of generosity based on care for the bigger picture is what gets you through tough days. While it is going to be difficult to persuade the racist, nationalistic, individualistic and patriarchal among us (and often inside us) to do this, the situation is dire: either we work together as a city, based on care and noticing needs, or we destroy our possibility of being a collective, which is what a city is. The question everyone has to think about is what does it mean to be a collective, in this situation? In that way we rediscover politics — and more specifically, an ecological politics: that we all depend on everyone’s wellbeing; that everyone depends on our capacity to create a workable ecology for homes and services and businesses. What is normally scoffed at as “utopian” in the “strongest individuals survive” mentality promoted by neoliberalism, is now a basic and necessary home truth. The democratic social contract only works if you create a functioning ecology. The city’s ecology has broken down because of low rainfall: human collective effort is now needed to supply what “ecosystem services” have done for free.

You asked what I meant about seeing this crisis as an opportunity to build a greener and more climate resilient city. The rise of cities since the 1960s has been extraordinary, and cities are only possible because of sewage management and bulk water, bulk energy and bulk food supply, and waste removal. But the ecological costs of bulk supply are enormous. Cities are extraordinarily wasteful infrastructures because they are built on the idea of bulk supply only, removing the responsibility of all to live ecologically. Most urban design gives barely a thought to water or energy. So whole new developments go in as if they are alien spaceships and have nothing to do with the ecologies that sustain them. Hard surfacing means water runs off very fast, as stormwater, and doesn’t seep into the soil. Result: no aquifer recharge; flooding; lowering of water table; drier soils; loss of large trees; higher temperatures on streets; more aircon, more fossil fuels, greater climate change. Simple water-wise solutions would change this. So: this crisis makes it evident that water-sensitive urban design must become mandatory for EVERY new development.

I think it is entirely appropriate to look at Cape Town (and Port Elizabeth, for that matter — also facing a day zero) as an example of an evolutionary limit of a city based on that kind of “eco-thoughtless” design. At some point the system collapses in on itself, whether through poor planning (in one large city) or through changed climate (from so many large cities). But consider rainfall in relation to roof area in Cape Town. If every rooftop was harvesting rainwater, we would be well on the way to saving the water that falls locally — and it is a lot — we would be storing local downpours as well as the water that the faraway dams collect. The city can and should be looking at localised water solutions, at household level. There should be a subsidy system for water tanks and guttering into them. That would build more climate change resilience for the coming years.

Consider sewage. Cape Town has a massive problem with sewage going out to sea. We could be recycling about 50% of the water from sewage, I’m told by engineers, and ensuring that pharmaceuticals and organic pollutants are removed. Again, this will lead to greater climate resilience. Compost toilets are also very useful — I’m installing one in my home — but there too, I worry about persistent organic pollutants getting into soil and the water table or aquifers, so I’m not convinced these are a long term solution for a major city on major medications, and using the kind of toxic cleaning products that supermarkets push.

There’s another whole discussion there: Why do we clean our houses with toxins and call them clean? Surely we need to rethink “clean” beyond “shiny” to consider the health of the whole household — and its ecology. The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word “ekos” (oikos, if you use the correct spelling). “Ekos” means HOUSEHOLD. It is also the root word of “economy” and “ecumene”. This ecological crisis in which we find ourselves has come about because we have split ecology from economy, thinking of economy only as finance, not natural flows, growths and cycles. And we have split ecology and economy from ecumene, or society: forgetting that the three depend on each other, and come together in how we live, how we make our homes.

Then let’s look at the city’s rivers. The Black River, the Liesbeeck, the Eerste, the Kuils, the Keyser — these should be clean, and should be sources of water that we could use in this crisis. It is scandalous that they flow every day but that their waters are so filthy the city can’t even consider using them for drinking water. It is true that the flamingoes are back on the Black River, and that is the accomplishment of a team of under-resourced fresh water ecologists who’ve done extraordinary things. But the rivers are still terrible. That needs to change. We need to reclaim our relationships with rivers, and care for them and their water like we care for the health of our own arteries. Collective clean ups of the river are possible. They flow through communities rich and poor. River clean ups can be vital spaces of collective care and attention across race and class divides.

Spring water: that the city is finally re-piping some of its springs into dams is brilliant. Bravo. A small but vital step towards climate resilience.

The above infrastructural interventions span short and long term. The point is that through this crisis, the political will towards ecological solutions is being rediscovered. We are discovering that the city is not a spaceship. It is part of planet earth, and we need a politics that works with local planetary processes — which is what local ecologies are. In this, we can, if we choose, recognise the limits of individualism, and rediscover the power of collective action. In an era that has come to be defined by anti-politics, reclaiming this kind of collective, public-minded, ecological politics is what will make the biggest difference. Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has written a great deal about science and politics in the coming climate crisis. The translation of the title of one her recent books is “In times of crisis, resist the impulse to barbarism.”

Can Cape Town act collectively to generate a new eco-politics? That’s the issue.

Liesbeeck River


(Photo Credit 1: UCT News) (Photo Credit 2: The Watershed Project)

Things fall(ing) apart

Things fall(ing) apart

It can only happen
where there are
no Bikos or Chés
no Harons Sobukwes
Timols or Mandelas even

It can only happen (here)
down South where women
and children are abused
ritually regardless

Out Heideveld way
where chess is in
at the local library
and a chess competition
acclaims young minds

Out Heideveld way
where some celebrate
their title deeds whilst
others decry and deny
the charges of the usual
corruption and incompetence

Houses falling apart
a metaphor for all
that is dark out there
on the Cape Flats
(where the city works)

Houses falling apart
out in Africa in the
Third World in the
undeveloped and
end of our polluted planet

Houses for All was
once a slogan

now it is
Houses falling apart

Houses ‘falling apart’ (Athlone News, December 6 2017)


(Photo Credit: HouseIt)

That is not right

Chanelle McCrawl

That is not right

A paternal grandfather
can’t get much sleep
as yet another
young one is killed

(she thrown on a field
like a piece of garbage)

That is not right
she is a human being

(a local library colleague
wonders whether children
are growing up too quickly)

elsewhere a besuited one
declares that gangs
are using weapons
of war

blustering on about
never failing our people
and liberating our people
from prisons of fear

is the mind not
that dangerous place
that weapon of war

male suspects appear
and are charged
while we fill that
other concrete prison

then tick off boxes
for political statisticians
and the statistics
of politicians

Is that right

“Another girl killed, another tenant held” (Cape Times, October 24 2017), “Charnelle’s mom shares her grief” (Argus, October 24 2017), “Another child found dead” (Athlone News, October 25 2017), and “Gangs using ‘weapons of war’” (Athlone News, October 18 2017).

(Photo Credit: David Ritchie / ANA / Cape Argus)

People don’t sleep because of the violence and crime

People don’t sleep because of the violence and crime. Early in the morning from 5am to 7:30 the screaming starts as people are robbed on their way to work and school. But the police resources continue to follow the apartheid patterns and, with the chance to change that unequal picture, the South African Police Service, or SAPS, is often making the same decisions as they did 25 years ago. So now we campaign for #PoliceResources.

Now they are suggesting building an extremely expensive police station in Muizenberg. People in Vrygrond, Seawinds, Capricorn can’t get to Muizenberg, but no matter. Communities in Delft, Nyanga, Mitchell’s Plain, Harare, Khayelitsha and many more are still not fixed. So, we need actions that join these dots and connect the different communities.

We held a meeting and here are some ideas from the room:

“We are gatvol” We are fed up and done with it.

Why 100 000 000 rand for one building???

We must watch how that money will be spent.

We must organize, not just the people suffering the worst crime and the least protection, but the white and re middle class too.

Interdict the SAPS, stop the building.

Occupy SAPS until we get a real commitment



(Image Credit: Facebook / Social Justice Coalition)

South Africa built a special hell for asylum seekers: Refugee Reception Offices

A report released yesterday in Johannesburg reveals “shocking levels of corruption and serial abuse” at South African refugee centers. Of the five Refugee Reception Offices, Marabastad, in Pretoria, wins the Most Corrupt Award … again. The report, while dismaying, is no shock.

According to the report’s introduction, “Established in 1998, South Africa’s asylum system was designed to identify those individuals in need of protection in accordance with the country’s international obligations and democratic character.” By 1998, the South African government had traded in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP, for the Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR, strategy, which traded any promise of social justice for something called “growth.” Asylum seekers and refugees didn’t fall into the GEAR strategy, and so by the time South Africa decided it was time for asylum, it was already too late: “The current state of affairs is the product of a deliberate government choice to avoid addressing fundamental issues in the asylum system.”

Here’s Marabastad in 2008: “Asylum applicants at Marabastad have taken to sleeping outside the office, in the hope that this will improve their chances of getting inside. There are regularly between eighty and three hundred people sleeping outside. At night armed criminals visit the site. Incidents of theft are common. There have been several reports of rape. There is no shelter in the vicinity of the office and people often endure rain and very cold conditions. Many women sleep with babies by their side. On some occasions the police have visited during the night and arrested asylum seekers or extorted them for bribes. Fights about places in the queue are common, sometimes degenerating into the throwing of bricks and stones and leading to several cases of hospitalisation. On at least one occasion metropolitan officials arrived in the morning to clear all temporary shelters, bedding, and belongings of people gathered outside the office.” In 2011, “the conditions at Marabastad … still are, to most objective onlookers, appalling.”

And now, in 2015, Marabastad is the most corrupt, and this in South Africa, which had one of the highest asylum and refugee rejection rates in the world last year, rejecting between 90% and 100% of all asylum applications processed from Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, India, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burundi and Uganda. South Africa is the land where all roads lead to rejection.

To the toxic brew of incompetence, underfunding, and xenophobic and sexist violence, yesterday’s report adds corruption. One has to pay to play, and many are the ways: pay to cross the border, move up the line, renew a permit, pay spurious fines, avoid arrest, and generally improve `service.’

Women figure in this variously. First, the researchers interviewed mostly men because there were more men than women outside the reception centers and because “women were generally less willing to participate.”

Second, in discussing the Department of Home Affairs, or DHA, tepid response to corruption, the report tells a story, “In July 2014, an asylum seeker told Lawyers for Human Rights that a refugee status determination officer (RSDO) at the Marabastad refugee reception office had asked her for R2500 in exchange for refugee status. LHR contacted the counter-corruption unit, which agreed to set up a sting operation.” What followed was a nightmare of bungling and general lack of concern on the part of the DHA, so that, in the end, all the weight falls on the most vulnerable and least able: “Asylum seekers must be willing to come forward, despite fear of reprisals, and must be able to provide … details. The DHA does not target the wider processes outside of these individual complaints.”

Finally, one asylum seeker in Cape Town reports: “People ask for money. Officials don’t help you or tell you what is happening. They play on their phones. Security guards ask for money but not openly. It is a previously made deal. Then they grab the people and take them to the front of the queue. Never women. People from Zim only get a one month extension and other people from other countries get 3 to 6 months.”

Never women.


(Photo Credit: Kristy Siegfried / IRIN)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world


Gloria Kente

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.


(Photo Credit: IOL / Jeffrey Abrahams) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)


Women cleaners and domestic workers confront violence against women

From Hong Kong to Qatar to Greece to the United States, domestic workers and women cleaners are under attack. They are under attack because they are women. In South Africa this year, domestic workers and women cleaners have confronted the attack head on.

Delia Adonis works as a cleaner in a mall in Cape Town. Last month, Adonis saw five men attack a sixth. She called the police, who intervened. She then went to the parking lot, where the five men encircled her, knocked her to the ground, and beat her. Throughout the assault, the men used racist and sexist epithets.

Adonis called the police and laid charges on the five men. It turns out they’re UCT students. Adonis claims that the police came to her and offered her money to drop the case. The officer allegedly said that the men were afraid of being kicked out of school. Adonis rejected the offer, and all it represented: “I’m really angry about this. I’m traumatised and still in pain. These youngsters verbally abuse us every weekend, and now this? I’m a mother of six – how would they feel if someone beat up their mothers like that? There was so much blood pouring from my face I couldn’t see. When I washed my face. I just thought to myself: ‘Boys, you can run but I leave you in the hands of the Lord’.”

Cynthia Joni works as a domestic worker in Cape Town. One morning, Joni was walking to work, when a white man leapt out of his car, slapped and threw her to the ground. She screamed, and he drove away. He was later identified and charged. His `explanation’ was that he mistook Cynthia Joni for a sex worker and `snapped.’ To no one’s surprise, it turns out that Cynthia Joni is not the first woman he’s assaulted. Now others are coming forth.

While the toxic mix in both the physical violence and then the subsequent violence that passes for explanation are important, the women’s response is more important. Domestic workers, sex workers, women workers reject the violence and call on the State to address it … forcefully and immediately.

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. Last year, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with both assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it.

Today’s stories echo the past. Over six years ago, four white students at the University of the Free State videotaped their assault on five cleaners, Mothibedi Molete, Mankoe Phororo, Emmah Koko, Nkgapeng Adams and Sebuasengwe Ntlatseng. The video went viral, as did disgust, and the cleaners, four women and one man, fought back. This June, the five cleaners launched their own company.

Today, however, domestic workers and women cleaners are making demands on the State. Domestic workers and women cleaners reject the protectionism that would see them as a separate class in need of help. They are workers with rights, women with rights, and humans with rights. As women workers increasingly demand their civil, labor, and human rights be respected, they consolidate power. The struggle continues.


(Photo Credit: Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust)

Love is all around


Love is all around

Love is all around
is my lyrical response
to a Vukani letter-writer
from out yonder KTC

Where is love
in the townships
is the question asked
(amidst partying and drinking
round our social grant days)

Love is all around
I declare as I ramble
in and about Site C Khayelitsha

A bustling Saturday morning
down Govan Mbeki Road
to the Whizz ICT Centre
for their Youth Centre Launch
and an end-user computer Graduation

(them a small light of hope
all about community sustainability
in a place overshadowed)

Love is all around (too)
at the Moses Mabhida Library
where I’ve been before
for a Reading Competition
(fall in love with learning
says a mural on their wall)

Love is all around
5 happy earthly hours I spend
(language notwithstanding)
as the Youth Centre is launched
and students joyously graduate

Love is all around

What stops you
from making it so too


“Where is love in the townships?” (Letters, Vukani community paper, October 30 2014)


(Photo Credit: Whizz ICT Centre)

One can ask the question

June Orsmond and students asking the question

One can ask the question

One can ask the question
empowering young minds
as a 77-year-old is doing
at Lavender Hill High School
(outside of our ritual Days)

One can ask the question
why the white woman label
20-odd years in to a democracy
the media reports as such
(are they still group-thinking)

All the white I know
is the hoary-old ditty
A whiter shade of pale
a little-known collective noun
a whiteness of swans
(and the Beatles’ White Album)

I ask the question
from a non-racial rearing
enfolded by humanists
political educators teachers
civic-minded campaigners
(African) Marxists and Socialists
feminists and womynists too

(with Achebe and Ngugi
and Neruda and Brecht
they made their mark though
not with corporal punishment)

One can ask the question
with all the progressive battles
(no normal sport in an abnormal)
where has all the non-racialism gone
was it just a passing charade

One can ask the question
what seeds do we plant
as June Orsmond is doing
(the power of one person)
in Lavender Hill and elsewhere
in the ghetto of young minds

Marina da Gama grandmother June Orsmond’s work, in “The power of one” (Argus, July 2 2014), brings forth the question.

(Photo Credit: Cape Argus)

What Dembe, Mari, Masani, and Flavirina knew and what they learned

Dembe Ainebyona has suffered: State violence, mob violence, rape. Ainebyona is a 31-year-old lesbian, originally from Uganda, currently living in the Cape Town metropolitan area. In 2009, she applied for asylum status in South Africa. Unaware of South Africa’s liberal laws concerning LGBTQ people, Ainebyona hid her lesbian identity and hid the real reasons she had fled Uganda. She was denied asylum. Her appeal comes up in a few months.

This is not a story about Uganda. This is a story about South Africa and the reality of its so-called liberal laws as lived by LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers. It’s not a pretty story.

A recent report, Economic Justice: Employment and Housing Discrimination Against LGBTI Refugees and Asylum Seekers in South Africa, read against the account of Dembe Ainebyona, reveals a story, that of asylum seekers and refugees in the Cape Town area.

Why focus on Cape Town? Dembe Ainebyona lives there. It’s a global tourist as well as refugee destination. It’s a `model’ for neoliberal urban redevelopment.

And this: “In July 2012, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) closed its Cape Town RRO [Refugee Reception Office] and refused to accept any new requests for asylum at the location. The temporary shutdown was particularly problematic for undocumented LGBTI newcomers because it placed them at risk of detention and subsequent repatriation. In fact, the largest population of refugees and asylum seekers reside in Cape Town. To push back, PASSOP and other advocates protested outside the closed RRO. Another human rights organisation also challenged in court the legality of the RROs closing. In July 2012, the Western Cape High Court ordered the DHA to continue accepting new asylum applications until the court provided a final determination on the case, thereby providing new asylum seekers entering Cape Town interim relief. After months of rallies and public outcry spearheaded by PASSOP, the Western Cape High Court ordered in March 2013 that the RRO fully resume operations by July 2013. However, despite these 2012 and 2013 court rulings, it was reported in April 2013 that the Cape Town RRO had not accepted any new applications since June 2012.” Welcome to Cape Town!

Here’s the story of Mari, Masani, and Flavirina, residents of Cape Town.

Mari: “Lesbian asylum seeker Mari has an educational background in finance management and worked as an accountant in her home country of Angola. She reports that she had two interviews where, after having a positive reception on the phone, the potential employer would not even ask for her CV or paperwork after meeting her in person and assuming her sexual orientation … Mari, who recently escaped from Angola with her girlfriend, explained that she and her girlfriend had to sell all of their possessions and combine their savings to purchase plane tickets to flee to South Africa. Since arriving in Cape Town, they have been unable to find work and therefore are unable to afford housing. (Mari explains that despite their efforts to find employment, they are extremely limited because they cannot seek asylum seeker status and obtain legal documentation since the Cape Town DHA office has stopped accepting new arrival applicants.)”

Masani: “Lesbian refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable as they are often victims of sexual assault. As a result of discriminatory attitudes, police officers do not take reports of sexual assaults targeting the LGBTI community seriously. [Masani, a Ugandan lesbian] explains that police often respond with additional harassment when speaking with victims, asking questions such as, `How can you enjoy sex with ladies?’”

Flavirina: “Flavirina arrived in Cape Town from Burundi as a guest for an LGBTI/transgender conference. When people in her hometown heard why she had left the country, an official from Burundi contacted her and warned her to stay out of the country or she would likely be imprisoned or attacked upon her return. She applied for refugee status in South Africa and is still pending a determination. Since living in South Africa, she has lived in various shelters, on the streets and is currently living in a township. At one point, Flavirina found refuge at a Christian shelter, where she had to hide both her Muslim religion and her gender identity. The shelter separated the living quarters by gender, forcing her to share showers, dressing rooms, and other living quarters with men. As the shelter did not allow new members to leave the premises for the first three months of their stay, Flavirina was trapped in this environment, having to dress and act male. After coming out to the pastor in charge of the shelter, he told her he could no longer guarantee her safety.”

Most interviewees in this report were aware of the protections in South Africa’s Constitution, and the minority that were not came to the country following rumors of tolerance in the nation’s communities.” They found violence and promise, persecution and hope. They found that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for lesbians. They found as well that, in South Africa, life can be hard and dangerous for women marked as `foreigner’.  As non-national Africans and as lesbians, they face housing and employment discrimination.

In February, Free Gender, the Khayelitsha-based Black lesbian organization, celebrated 20 years of democracy and lamented 20 years of fear. They celebrated the rule of law as they decried the rule of violence and torture.

For those who decry and work to reverse the current wave of homophobic legislation, continue to do so. At the same time, ensure your country has more than good laws. Make sure you welcome and care for the stranger in your strange land, whoever she may be.


(Video Credit: The Atlantic Philanthropies / YouTube)