Beverly Ditsie’s Fearless Speech
Beverley Palesa Ditsie is one of South Africa’s pioneering black queer activists, a documentary storyteller, television director, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), and the first out lesbian to speak at the United Nation’s Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
Beverley Ditsie’s Fearless Speech is a book co-authored by STIAS fellow Sharad Chari of the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley and Ditsie.
“The book will reflect on Ditsie’s life and thought, and aims to bend biography into a critique of sexuality in the old/new South Africa. Rather than seeing democratic South Africa as a place in which queer rights have been realised, Ditsie’s life and thought takes us through a story of gendered and queer struggle across generations, through the making of a set of grassroots struggles at apartheid’s end in Johannesburg, and to shifting possibilities in the mid-1990s, as seen from the present,” explained Chari.
In their seminar they read from and presented teasers from the draft manuscript and offered insights into their process. “Overall our aim is to contribute to building the literary and cultural archive of black, African and queer feminists,” said Chari.
Thanking STIAS for the “space, love, care and camaraderie”, Ditsie pointed out that she only agreed to do the book “if it is not only about me. We had to agree on the approach. It’s a biography which means it has to go into mine and my family history and give an account about us, but it’s also a critical look at the transition from apartheid to now and a critique of the present.”
“You can’t forget who you come from, whose child you are. Previous generations bring us here and the ancestors know you,” she added. “But feminist collectives are not about individuals. The feminist ideal is not to celebrate individualism – that idea has governed my life.”
In their reading Chari and Ditsie focused on pivotal moments from each of the book chapters highlighting formative incidents and influential people from Ditsie’s life.
This included growing up in a female-dominated household. “My father was not around during my childhood. I lived in a home of women, a home where men never stayed.”
Another important moment was Ditsie’s 16th birthday party which included the Culture Club (inspired by Boy George) – “Nine gay boys and a lesbian,” she laughed. “As rebels we took on 80’s UK and US white music. No one had seen so many queer people on one block”.
This was followed by a physical transition to another area. “A coloured area which required a certain propriety and no ‘boy self’. But I was outed at school and called to the principal’s office where I was told ‘I knew you were a problem’. The outing spread like wildfire. I was isolated and shunned, until the gay boys found me – always the gay boys, my people”.
She went on to speak of her relationship with anti-apartheid, gay and AIDS activist Simon Nkoli (the subject of her 2002 film Simon and I) –with whom she and Linda Ngcobo formed GLOW in 1988 and organised the first Gay Pride March on the African continent in 1990. Ditsie credited Nkoli, who had been jailed for treason in 1984 following the Delmas Treason Trial, for inculcating her understanding of oppression based on both race and sexuality.
“I didn’t know what I was stepping into,” she said. “At that time gayness was not seen as African. Black gay women didn’t exist and were not represented. Simon’s speech changed the game – emphasising we were oppressed because we were both black and gay, and that we must fight both oppressors. Simon made it possible for others to fight apartheid, homophobia and xenophobia.”
Ditsie also provided background to her most public pivotal moment addressing the international community at the 1995 Beijing Conference.
“We were told we had five minutes. It was clear that the speaker couldn’t be white or European, Mandela had mentioned sexual orientation in one of his speeches, so I was chosen. We wrote the speech through the night, rehearsed and fine-tuned it.”
The speech told the world that Africans are black, gay and proud and pushed the ANC leadership in South Africa into a realisation that they had to address gay rights in the Constitution.
However, Ditsie and Chari pointed to the mid 1990s as a major turning point in gay activism in South Africa.
As one example, Ditsie described the increasing ‘gentrification’ of gay pride. “Pride was depicted as a numbers game. They turned a march into a parade and moved it to the white suburbs. I still feel anger.”
“Through Foucault’s insight that ‘sexuality is a dense transfer point in relations of power’, the mid-1990s appears as a transfer point between multiple tracks in the politics of sexuality: one track leading to the protection of LGBT rights in the new Constitution and to the legal struggles that followed, another track leading to the struggles over the politics of HIV/AIDS, another to public space and the pride march, another to questions of black lesbian autonomy in the face of violence, and a final track on cultural work across media led by black women and conceptualised with particular force by poets Makhosazana Xaba and Gabeba Baderoon,” explained Chari.
“The book refers to the courage with which Ditsie’s thought sits between the last two tracks. Like a modern-day Antigone, Ditsie is both specific and enabled by a broader set of forces and figures to speak out in defense of black queer, lesbian and trans life as African,” he continued. “Rather than just about Bev, this book looks outward at the unfinished (South) African revolution, towards the cultural work necessary for a queer Africa.”
He also highlighted Judith Butler’s work on sexuality and power. “Butler pushes us to demand justice from an unjust world, to adjust the moral norms of self-making,” he explained. “Social theory must find a living place for black queer life. Where black queer life flourishes so must all life.”
He explained that in South Africa this means addressing a neopatrimonial ANC and fighting for a recircling of the wagons against sexual violence and patriarchy.
In this regard, Ditsie pointed to the establishment of the Let’s Help Each Other group five years ago which has gone into townships to try to understand why some areas are hotspots for violence against women and especially why queer women are seen as easy targets. “The problem is bigger than just queer. To change things you must change everything,” she said. “And if we do end patriarchy, then what?”
In answer to questions, they addressed the use of terminology. “We are being reflective while in the present,” said Chari. “But we don’t have a definitive answer and welcome feedback. Our engagement is in the present. We are puzzling over and thinking about the past for the present. But we all engage with multiple pasts. I guess we didn’t work for the queer word so we can use it lightly. However, there is no place where the terms are secure.”
Ditsie also spoke to the challenges of reconciling the public and private. “It’s about how to be okay in the public space to enable yourself to do the work that needs to be done,” she said. “Who represents someone like me if not me? But we must be conscious of the spaces we inhabit and conscious of the listener. I am the conduit, but must be aware of who else and what else is outside of us. It requires trust.”
“Reconciling the past is difficult for me. I want to bring in other voices, not just my opinion.”
“I choose which parts of myself I offer,” she added. “My spirituality is sacred and will remain so. I protect myself through my spirituality – my God and my ancestors.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu