Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“We lesbians are not seen as either women or men.”
Who: Kunu Semake
What: Works for the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, and runs her own youth club.
We are sitting by the side of the road outside a house in the township of KwaThema, a few miles outside Johannesburg. The owner of the house, a sturdy woman with several children running around her legs, has opened her ‘restaurant’. Every afternoon she drags a home-made barbecue out to the road, lights the fire and starts barbecuing chicken. She does not serve chicken breasts or thighs but claws and entrails, pieces she buys cheaply at the market. Many people drop by or stop the car on their way home from work. The claws go like hotcakes.
We are here to meet Jents, one of the lesbian women who have been raped in KwaThema. It is Jent’s older sister who runs the chicken barbecue.
Kunu Semake is our guide, and our insurance. Two Europeans carrying expensive equipment and a lot of money in their wallets cannot move around freely in KwaThema. Even our driver from Johannesburg is a little afraid, but in Kunu’s company we are safe. She is well-known, and trusted. She has been to university and studied social development. And yet she is unemployed.
South Africa has a good constitution, I’m very proud of it, but we would like to see clear wording forbidding hate crimes against homosexuals.
“I don’t get paid, I’m a part-time volunteer in the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project. At the moment we’re struggling with the question of hate crimes. South Africa has a good constitution, I’m very proud of it, but we would like to see clear wording forbidding hate crimes against homosexuals. We arrange demonstrations, write petitions and agitate.
“Because South Africa has a constitution which forbids the discrimination of homosexuals, we think we should be more active internationally. When the President of Uganda says that homosexuality is “un-African”, South Africa should protest to the African Union. We are putting pressure on the Department of International Affairs to make our country work for us in the AU, not against us. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t.
“Things have actually changed after Eudy Simelane was murdered and her killer convicted. The publicity given to the “corrective” rapes has had a huge impact and the police are making more of an effort.
“There were lesbians before this too, of course, before we had democracy, but they hid themselves away. We don’t need to do that any longer. We have been given our rights. We go to municipal meetings and ask our questions openly. One question, for example, is about the rules for gender quotas. If five women and five men are being employed on a particular occasion, we are ignored. We are not seen as either women or men. That is discrimination, and not allowed under the constitution.
“We can go into the schools now to talk about what it means to be homosexual. It’s something completely new to many of the youngsters.
We can go into the schools now to talk about what it means to be homosexual. It’s something completely new to many of the youngsters.
“Sometimes we are even invited into the churches and made to feel welcome, even though we’re dressed like this.”
Kunu does not look ‘unwomanly’ in our European eyes, but she is wearing jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. A ‘real woman’ is expected to wear a skirt or dress. Many of the other lesbians we meet have taken a step further, shaving their heads and dressing in suits, ties and heavy men’s shoes. They move around in an exaggerated ‘manly’ fashion and speak in deep voices. They are not averse to fighting, and are considered provocative in a community where the woman is expected to be obedient and sexually willing.
“Some of the lesbians would like to have a sex-change operation,” says Kunu, “but they can’t afford to. It’s hard feeling that you’re in the wrong body.”
Kunu runs another project outside her life as an LGBT activist, where she gathers young people in her home village together and works against alcohol and drugs. Education and discussion help the young people to see a future, despite the fact that they have been to poor schools and have no possessions.
“The economy in this country is still run by the whites,” says Kunu Semake.
Rape is a major problem in Kunu’s rural project as well.
“Many girls have been raped at home by their uncles. Talking about it is taboo. Some of them start taking money for sex. Nobody talks about that either. Young people and children aren’t supposed to say much at all, about anything. A child should not even look an adult in the eye.”
Kunu wants to change that. And with the constitution behind her, it will be possible, she says, and stands up to fetch another chicken claw.
The figures for rapes in South Africa we had seen before we left were hard to fathom. That four out of ten women could expect to be raped at some point in their lives – that is more than the total number who complete school. And that more than every fourth man in the survey admitted that he had raped someone. Could this possibly be true?
We met lesbians in the townships who are raped for ‘corrective’ purposes, so that they, by some impossible line of reasoning, will understand what ‘fun’ it is to have sex with a ‘real man’.
Then we began to meet the victims of rape. One after the other they told us how they had been subjected to brutal assaults by individual or groups of men. Like the refugee from Zimbabwe who had been gang-raped twice on her way to a better life in Johannesburg. She was having big problems loving her daughter, the result of a rape. We met Jents and the other lesbians in the townships who are raped for ‘corrective’ purposes, so that they, by some impossible line of reasoning, will understand what ‘fun’ it is to have sex with a ‘real man’.
Our driver did not say much. He raised his eyebrows when the suit-clad butches got into the car and flirted with Linda, our photographer, but he did not say anything.
Until the day when he turned to face us as we sat in the back of the car and said:
“We never called it rape.”
We never called it rape.
“Well, you know, when the girls went out into the woods to gather firewood in the village I grew up in, we boys used to follow them. We drew lots to see which girl we would have and if you were lucky you got the one you wanted. If not, you got someone else. We just went up to them and pushed them down. They didn’t say anything. But now, looking back, I understand that they probably didn’t want to ….
“When the youngsters got back to the village no-one said anything about what had happened. No-one ever talked about sex. It was something shameful, taboo. It’s wrong to have sex before marriage and a girl who had been raped was ashamed. Why would she tell anyone and destroy her reputation? If a girl got pregnant after the forest outings the boy would accept his responsibility and marry her. Otherwise nothing happened.”
Would our driver have answered yes when asked if he had raped someone? Perhaps the figure of every fourth South African man as a rapist is far too low.
Maternal deaths: 236 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.3 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy depending entirely on the wishes of the woman. Thereafter up to the sixth month of pregnancy if there are special reasons, such as the health of the woman or an abnormality of the foetus. (2007)
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: in 2010 almost 68,000 cases of sexual harassment were reported in a six-month period, most of them rape. It is claimed that almost 28 per cent of the male population have raped a woman or girl. 40 per cent of South African women stated in a report published by the WHO that their first sexual experience took place without their consent.