Lesbians take part in a Gay Pride Day in Soweto. South Africa was the first to adopt a constitution that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Partly as a result, the country has the most open gay community on a continent where homosexuality is usually driven underground and portrayed as unAfrican, and an unwanted legacy of colonialism and white culture.

The authorities clearly have a homophobic and prejudiced agenda by unjustly suppressing events that advance political awareness and rights’ realisation, at a time when they should be supporting projects that promote our constitution, writes Katherine Robinson

The annual Soweto Pride march is an important part of LGBTIAQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, queer) heritage in South Africa. But for the first time in the event’s 11-year history, the authorities last month forced organisers to postpone Soweto Pride, which was set to take place in Meadowlands on Heritage Day.

Whether it’s pre-emptively booking mortuary vans before a mass murder; tactically deploying riot police and armoured vehicles to Wits University to stop students from gathering at the Great Hall or preventing queer people from marching to demand “safety justice and freedom”, our plutocracy's clamp down on people’s political mobilisation is becoming a frighteningly common and conspicuous trend.

Soweto Pride was started by the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (Few) in response to the rape and murder of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa in Meadowlands in 2007, and the hate crimes perpetrated against black lesbian women in townships across the country.

Since its establishment, Soweto Pride has continued as a political, didactic and non-commercial project, providing a safe, free and accessible space for LGBTIAQ people to protest against the continued discrimination and violence meted out against queer black bodies, to give visibility to their rights and to celebrate diversity.

In a decision that was “absolute and could not be challenged”, the provincial office of the SAPS backed by emergency medical services, disaster management, Joburg metro police department (JMPD) and public order police, organisers were told that the Soweto Pride be postponed because it had been shifted from a low-risk event to a medium-risk event.

This regarded categorisation places much greater restrictions on the event as well as exorbitant financial burdens, which Few, as a non-profit organisation cannot afford.

According to Few’s statement upon notice of the categorisation, “the legislation governing recreational events clearly states that in the event of a change in risk… written reasons are to be furnished to the event organiser".

It had not received any written reasons and enquired about the reasons behind this decision. But it received no concrete response save for “unruly behaviour”.

The SAPS maintained there was “chaos” at Soweto Pride 2015 that saw a number of physical altercations, although Few said it was “not provided with reported cases substantiating these alleged incidents”.

Although the SAPS had an entire year to notify Few and furnish it with substantiating documentation, the police notified the organisers only a week before the event and failed to supply any supporting documents. The SAPS still has not done so.

Even when prompted by Power FM’s Iman Rappetti and Few’s organisers on a live radio interview, the JMPD failed to offer any rhyme or reason for its decision.

Spokesperson chief superintendent Wayne Minnaar exasperated both listeners and panellists with his embarrassing display of ignorance, his impressive ability to repeat the same vacuous answer for almost every question asked, together with his unabashed refusal to qualify his insinuations: “I don’t know the detail of it… we are not going to allow disorder and disrespect in communities, and that’s it!"

Moreover, the moralism denoted by “orderly and respectful” simply has nothing to do with procedural criteria that demand an event shifts from a “low” to “medium risk”.

Also, what about the years when the JMPD didn’t bother to pitch up and Few was left to organise more marshals and volunteers at the last minute?

Superintendent Minnaar then suggested that Few appeal the decision, but as Few board member advocate Mandisa Mbatha-Beckett pointed out: “Our right to appeal was basically taken away by the JMPD, because they refused to furnish us with proof and reasons. It goes beyond marginalisation, to the policing of queer bodies.”

In 11 years, there has never been a serious or injurious incident reported during or after Soweto Pride. I have attended and supported Soweto Pride in both my personal and professional capacity for the past three years.

Every year, Few ensures that it has volunteer marshals, many of whom form part of ActionAid South Africa’s Activista youth network, to ensure participants are safe and “orderly”.

Few programme manager Phindi Malaza, who was forced to give up her seat at an ActionAid panel on inequality at the UN General Assembly to negotiate with the JMPD before Heritage Day, said Few faced homophobic discrimination and undue obstruction every year when dealing with the SAPS during the application process.

It is clear that the authorities have a homophobic and prejudiced agenda and are unjustly suppressing events that advance political awareness and rights realisation, at a time when they should be proactively supporting Soweto Pride, and in fact throwing their full weight behind projects that promote our constitutional values and which contribute to safe public spaces for all citizens.

Not one year passes in South Africa without hate crimes being perpetrated against LGBTIAQ people.

Just last month Lesley Makousa was laid to rest in Potchefstroom. He is one of many who have been murdered and violated because of their sexuality and gender identity.

In June, on the international stage, 49 people were shot dead in a gay night club in Orlando, US.

Shortly after that, despite prevalent hate crimes in South Africa, our legislation protecting the rights or LGBTIAQ people, and South Africa being perceived as a leader on sexuality and gender identity rights across the globe, South African representatives abstained on a key vote in the UN Human Rights Council to appoint a special rapporteur on the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (Sogi).

Although in recent months, we saw a positive outcome after citizens and civil society put pressure on the government to ensure the infamously homophobic American pastor Steven Anderson be banned from entering our borders and spreading hate speech, homophobic and transphobic views are widespread in South Africa.

According to the latest Gauteng City-Region Observatory Quality of Life Survey, 1.26 million people in Gauteng approve of violence against gays and lesbians.

The Other Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council released a study last week which found that more than half the country is homophobic, with three-quarters of South Africans believing there is something morally wrong with homosexuality, while 27 percent of those surveyed did not take a firm position on the constitutional rights of LGBTIAQ people.

More than 50 percent of those interviewed had either never heard of our constitutional clause on Sogi or did not understand it. Only one in five people reported understanding it well.

A recent Mamba Online article states that only 29 percent of Home Affairs branches have officials willing to marry same-sex couples. This is, in part, thanks to South Africa’s flawed Civil Union Act that legalised same-sex marriage in 2006, but which allows Home Affairs employees to discriminate against LGBTAIQ people “on the ground of conscience, religion and belief”.

It is nearly impossible to do anything without a correct ID in South Africa.

Without it, one can’t access social services; open a bank account; apply for a job; or travel. The Alteration of Sex Status and Sex Description Act 49 of 2003 permits South Africans to change their gender marker on their IDs.

Although an imperfect piece of legislation, provisions of Act 49 are regularly disregarded by Home Affairs, and applicants are met with violence, humiliation and endless delays.

A fortnight ago, after 26 years of Home Affairs’s prejudice and social exclusion, the high court in Pretoria finally mandated the department to issue Stephen Lombard with a new ID document reflecting his gender.

However, after three years of waiting, Nadia Swanepoel embarked on a hunger strike in an attempt to get Home Affairs to issue her with the correct ID.

These are just a few important reasons why Soweto Pride remains a critical day in our calendar and why it is incumbent upon the authorities to committedly support an event that raises awareness about citizens’ human rights.

Bev Ditsie, an activist at the forefront of South Africa’s first Gay Pride in 1990, spoke late last month at the opening of Iranti-Org’s Queer Pride African Pride exhibition. Ditsie said Soweto Pride was about visibility, and if black queer people were not visible, it perpetuated the misguided notion that queerness was unAfrican. “The more invisible we are, the more marginalised we become,” she said.

* Katherine V Robinson is the communications and campaigns co-ordinator at ActionAid South Africa. AASA is a long-time partner of Few and supporter of Soweto Pride