Black Gays & Mugabes

In the 10 years since the first publication of My Childhood As Adult Molester: A Salt River Moffie, Zackie Achmat’s influential sexual memoir, new (and old) definitions of what is (and mostly what isn’t) ‘African’ sexual practice have come from many of southern Africa’s political figures, from Robert Mugabe to Jacob Zuma. Achmat recently sat down with Elaine Salo to unpack same sex politics and sexuality on the continent, but especially in South Africa. Sean Jacobs kept the tape rolling and interrupted at the right times.


Elaine Salo (ES): Let me start by saying something about the whole issue about what is African, attacks on gays and gay practice. This I find scary. The experience of Namibia, and Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe started the latest rash of gay bashing. Subsequently there has been a downward spiral of freedoms, civil freedoms, and people weren’t taking note. For me, when you hear about attacks on minorities, whether sexual or whatever, it is not a good sign because who is to define who is African? Such behaviour usually leads to the closing down of the cosmopolitan nature of what is African.

Sean Jacobs (SJ): But there seems to be something in the way people talk. As if there was a moment in between the conservatism of the past and the recent remarks and actions of Mugabe, Sam Nujoma, of Jacob Zuma that oral sex is unAfrican, or Winnie Mandela and her remarks about saving Stompie from homosexual predators, or Ruth Mompati’s infamous statement about rehabilitating gays.

ES: I’m of course referring to post-colonialism. For me, it’s about coming out of a period of struggle where your senses are heightened about discrimination, or the infringement of rights based on race or gender, of people not necessarily like yourself. This is ongoing.

Zackie Achmat (ZA): If one talks about the continent it’s always difficult. Because generalisations can’t come easy, but they do. And the most important observation is that both identity politics and nationalism, African nationalism specifically, have been among the most destructive influences on the continent’s development for the flowering of civil society, of institutions for participation. What I mean is we have to locate sexual identity and politics -sexuality as well as gay, bisexual and transgender people’s identities in that context. First, for me, there is Gail Ruben, she wrote Thinking Sex. She said whenever people invent a panic or issue around sex and sexuality it is often an expression of other divisions or other tensions, stresses in the social fabric. That is very much the case in Namibia, Zimbabwe or Uganda. Even in our own case. If you read for example Thabo Mbeki’s letter to Bill Clinton, he wanted to say, “What is it that is common between black heterosexual sexuality here and white gay promiscuous sexuality in the USA?”

Let’s go a step back, take Zimbabwe. All of us, in the flush of Zim’s liberation ignored the Matabele massacre, and then of course the clampdown on the trade unions. I remember my old Trotskyist friends Dave Hemson, Darcy du Toit and others were arrested in Zim in 1985. The whites were expelled, but the African comrades were kept in jail and tortured for a long time. Apart from the left in the UK Labour Party no one really took issue with Mugabe, for a long time. Then came his attacks on gay people … I’m horrified that in this latest rounds of smashing of democracy and of civil society in Zimbabwe, that the gay community has been nowhere to be seen. Because when Mugabe attacked us the last time, we were out on the streets. He could not come to Johannesburg. He was picketed at Jan Smuts. His hotel was picketed. We picketed the Zim embassies very regularly and then gave enormous support to GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) in Harare. I was chatting to someone from Harare last night and I was asking how is GALZ doing. Later Nathan[Geffen] who is our national manager at TAC said is there any way that gay people survive in Zim and I said, man, they had an enormous gay parade, Ms Jacaranda, in August. So every year, it’s spring time and it’s a huge parade. You can’t destroy people unless you heard them into camps like the Nazis did. Zim has a vibrant underground gay community. One of the things that really struck Mugabe was Canaan Banana. And again here was an interesting dilemma for the gay and lesbian movement. One of the first preeminent statesmen of liberated Africa who had been sexually arresting and raping his bodyguards, pretending to be married. His whole family, society knew, and he was in the closet so-called, and there he gets caught out and one guard brings it out. No one paused for a moment to think about the different strains, contradictions and jokes. To cut a long story short, for me it’s about tension.

In Kenya it is very similar. I am on a list called Kenya-AIDS. And someone put out this rant equating homosexuality with paedophilia. Some people responded, and felt moved to justify homosexuality by pointing out that heterosexuals cause most paedophilia. I disagreed. I am so past justifying my existence to people who are idiots. It’s not necessary. The question is where are we as civil society dealing with issues.

If you are black today in Africa, or if you are coloured, asian, white, gay, a woman, and you are middle class, if you are all those things then you are fine. You can buy your privacy, your freedom, comfort of every sort, and you can buy yourself a non-discriminatory environment, in which you associate with people like yourself. While that does not belittle in any way the fact that there is middle class domestic violence, or middle class oppression of women or middle class homophobia, the reality is if you look at all of us at a global level in terms of identity politics we’re all quite well-off if you are middle class. The real problem is if you are gay and working class. Take marriage. I am not a supporter of marriage as an institution. When my brothers got married, they got huge amounts of presents, social recognition. They did not get married in court, they had a Muslim marriage, but with the new constitution, those marriages have the same legal status. But now, take for instance, what happens, they are both tilers, one is unemployed and he has two wives. The real problem here is that when they are unemployed and hungry, the family steps in. In poor societies marriage functions as part of the social security net.

ES: It’s a kind of cultural capital …

ZA: That’s right. There is such an overwhelming demand for poor gay and lesbian people to get married because it’s not just the legal recognition, but also the social acceptance. We have had such a complete legal revolution in the country that having sexual orientation cases in front of it now bores the Constitutional Court. So legal recognition is not a problem, but social acceptance, not for middle class people, but working class, poor and rural people. And there again, the biggest problem in civil society, is how we raise this. In a recent seminar that I attended, it was meant to be a discussion on same sex marriage. Some of the comrades who pretend to be feminist lesbians decided to make it a discussion of violence against women. And another comrade immediately raised the question, well what about transgender people. What I am saying … people are good at this, in the middle class and lumpen elements, at using identity politics in order to gain access to resources, to prominence, to status, and that for me is one of the biggest problems of identity politics, single-issue politics.

SJ: Is that not the kind of politics of the now?

ZA: Well, is AIDS a single issue? No. You have to deal with the WTO, you have to deal with men beating their wives, and you have to deal with men having sex with men, and hostels, mining corporations, drug companies…

ES: To get back to the continental stresses. Isn’t AIDS, attacks on gays and the massacre in Matabeleland, indicators of wider fracture, emerging inequalities, tensions?

ZA: Yes, to come back, what I think is a major problem for gay and lesbian identities in Africa, is that we are not assertive. We adopt a victim identity, and seek to be oppressed to establish some form of presence and legitimacy as an oppressed group.

ES: We take on identity politics from the West, where victim hood is automatically given the moral high ground. So claiming black, African-American identity in the States, right now that is the untouchable, victim identity there. Someone says I’m African-American, my experience is that of slavery, racism, etcetera, everybody backs off. Is it because of the moral power of that identity?

ZA: Someone says to me, “You are racist” when I attack that kind of politics. My response is usually that does not excuse your incompetence, laziness, sexism or homophobia. I agree, people attempt to occupy identity, and it has become an industry and it is basically a battle for resources and away to find resources. In AIDS, it is very evident that the only thing that poor people can sell is their HIV status. So they get wheeled in and out of AIDS conferences to weep about their HIV status and how terrible the stigma is and how terrible the oppression is, but you are not expected to talk about patents, global trade, drug companies and medicines in detail.

SJ: Before I came here, I was talking to Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan writer, who was going to be here, and he was saying two things about sexual politics in Kenya and it could help into turning the discussion about gays and lesbian identity in SA. He says the generation of political and intellectual leadership who speaks for us, came through mission education in which sexual identity was very Victorian, Catholic, Puritan. They romanticised about a mythical. African sexuality, in which there were no sexual identities outside of heterosexuality. He said he has evidence, not new, in the western province everyone knows there are lesbians. On the coast, men “play woman”. Among the Masai there are relationships among men. There is practice and there is the way it has been codified, and in social conventions. In such a context, here comes identity politics. Gay as a western identity, the preserve of the citizens, of whites, It’s interesting how in SA the ANC made gay out to be white, put it into the constitution, the moment it gets into the public sphere, among black people, the party gets conservative.

ZA: A few things in what you are saying. If we take SA’s history on lesbian, gay and transgender people, there is an enormous body of work. For instance, there is a Gay and Lesbian Archive at Wits University. In it you’ll find an enormous amount of data relating to the 19th century. Friends of mine, Jack Lewis and John Graysom are making a movie  about two guys caught having sex on Robben Island, and it is clear from the records that they had asexual relationship for twenty years. There was a homosexual panic in Amsterdam at the time as well as a change of regime on the island and they decided to execute these two men. One was Khoi, the other Dutch. They were tied together and thrown into the sea. That’s 1735, the earliest surviving record of a sodomy execution in SA. But if you look at the different approaches to sexuality there is the missionary influence to sexuality, which has also influenced the left. You can take it from Jabavu, Ethel Reader-Lewis, Winnie Mandela, and Khoisan X, all holding the same position which goes like the following: that homosexuality is not African, it’s the worst thing any black person can do. Take Ethel Reader-Lewis whom Tim Cousins fails to understand the racial and sexual representations in her work and he is just worried about the fact that she was a nice liberal, Fabian lady…

ES: There is enough of that. Shula Marks too.

ZA: I love Fabian ladies. I am one myself I love pulling on my black sash garland and go picketing. She is talking about the compounds. She says, “the man falls lower than the savage, lower than any beast in the forest, he falls, it may be to the slimy depths in which man creates man. In the compounds the sin against the holy ghost, against the inner most shrine of nature, sweeps like a germ-laden breath from the deepest sewers of civilization. In mature manhood, a man returns with shame to such sly practices as the urge of puberty that one’s let into. Deeply scarred, seduced by civilisation, the once normal savage goes back at last to his kraal.” And she goes on about the perverted foibles and what capitalism has done in Africa is to introduce perverted practices such as homosexuality. Then you have someone like Louis Leipoldt, who I think is one of the most remarkable Afrikaans thinkers in the Afrikaans 20th century, together with people like Braam Fischer, but obviously of a different mould. And no one could ever find if he was homosexual or bisexual. Kannemeyer spends 400 pages in a biography trying to disprove whether he was a fag.

Now look at this, Bush veld Doctor (1937) Leipoldt diedin 1947. lt would have been interesting to see what would happen to him had he lived, since he pushed for the extension of the vote to black people at the time. And he was the first editor of the medical journal, wrote cookbooks, looked after children and lived in the bushveld, and so on … He says [reads from the book], “the question of homosexuality falls into another and altogether different category. The Bushveld community is as homosexual and bisexual as any community living under similar conditions. But the manifestation of homosexual and bisexual traits in it are less obvious as they are elsewhere. It is lamentable that homosexuality is still regarded, even by some medical men as a sex perversion and that its discussion has been overloaded by the jargon of pseudo-scientific inanities. There would be less difficulty in understanding it and in dealing with its manifestation sanely if we would rid ourselves of traditional concept enshrined in the law of practically all protestant countries, that it is an anti-social abnormality. In SA, I believe, it is still a crime for two male citizens to practice it, although the last recorded instance in which a death sentence was pronounced, but not carried out, was in 1861. Since then, the accused have been proceeded against for common crimen injuria and not as all indictments would have it for a venereal affair with one of his own sex.” Of course, sodomy prosecutions continued up until 1993. And then he goes on and on, and then he does the opposite of the missionary point of view. He says, oh, no, no, the natives are sane about this matter, they think that all forms of sex are okay.

But now take Reader-Lewis and Leipoldt. It’s very interesting in SA history, in the historiography and literature, that the English, and those of us who were English missionary educated, have all these strange ideas, whereas the Afrikaners have a very different approach, even thought the Calvinists were the people who enforced the laws, there’s always been a greater tolerance, and Afrikaans, e.g. has a much greater body of “gay literature.”

SJ: Even at a popular level, the Sizzlers case and the funerals and how Huisgenoot and Die Burger covered it. Die Burger ran on the one Sizzlers victim from that small town, Niewoudtsville and went to town being empathic with the family, etc.

ZA: If you take ID de Plessis, the man of the Cape Malay Choirs, he wrote the first Afrikaans gay poem. Standard Afrikaans, not the amalgamation between Dutch and Afrikaans, because that man would be very cross with me if I said the first gay Afrikaans poem. But he also wrote the first gay short story in Afrikaans in 1937 – the same year – and he and Leipoldt were friends. They lived in what’s now the Italian consulate in town.

ES: They were friends?

ZA: Yes (Laughter).The interesting thing about all this is that there are periods in our history when homosexuality is much more tolerated, and other periods when it was not tolerated. There were periods when the Chinese came to the compounds and in order to get rid of the Chinese, when the Chamber of Mines discovered that the Chinese don’t work as hard as black Africans in the mines, they did a huge panic on the Chinese sodomites, that the Chinese were all sodomites and we had to get rid of them. Let’s take the whole period from the 40s right through. You have in the 30s and even into the 70s in District 6, an enormous moffie community, in which you have gay men, or men who dress up as women, transgender, play with sexual identity. I don’t know if you saw that one little movie Jack Lewis did, on Kewpie the hairdresser from District 6.

ES: In fact the District 6Museum, the soundscape there, there’s 2 moffies

SJ: They are presented as ‘family men’ though. But your earlier comment about social stigma…

ES: There’s this whole history of respectability. It’s precisely in the cracks of oorlamsigheid and working class society that there is a tolerance.

ZA: If you take Shamiel Jeppie and those people who write about D6, they have a blindspot. In one of his books, essays, he writes about the fact that there were moffies in the coons and that there were attacks on them. So he just consults the one week’s newspapers. The next week there is a whole rash of letters from the klopse organisers and the charities defending moffies, saying these people help us raise lots of money for poor people, in concerts and stuff, they are harmless basically. And this way back in the 1940s. And it emerges back in the 50s and 60s gay men dressing up as women, as it’s spectacle. But at the same time, a sort of fluid sexuality among working class coloured men, and I presume a lot of white men too. You find of lot of ordinary men, who I grew up with, who go and have sex with a drag queen.

ES: It still continues in Manenberg today, but the thing is who gets identified as ‘the transvestite’. But who he has sex with is not the issue, because it is really the performance of the role.

ZA: Wie is die moffie [who’s the moffie in the relationship]?

SJ: The best way to capture it, is to suggest that the identity gay is at odds with the people’s daily practice. That is not captured.

ZA: Let me talk about Lesotho and the goldmines in Jhb. When I was in the Gay and Lesbian Coalition, I met a very nice guy Pulehle Hlongwane, and when I made that movie, Apostles of Civilised Vice – that title was taken off the book by Ethel Reader-Lewis – Pule said to me you must come and meet my gay soccer club. I go to his house and he talks about his husband, a Mosotho man with four children and a wife in Lesotho. Pule is his other wife. And when the wife in Lesotho gets tired of the children, she sends them to Pule to look after over the border. There is an acknowledgement.

ES: What I find fascinating is the separation of space too. Dugmar Moodie wrote about this. The way the guys earn money for lobola for someone at home who wants to be the wife of someone in a mining compound. It’s a rite of passage into manhood.

ZA: What anthropologists and historians deny is desire. They strip these sexual relationships to their economical essentials. For some people there were deep emotional relations involved. For example, I read about Cato Manor in the 1950s -there was an article in Drum – and there was a vibrant gay life among the Zulu men there. Through the GALC [Gay And Lesbian Coalition] I met Alfred. Alfred is over 80, a Zulu man who come from Cato Manor. I went and interviewed him. Just before Apostles of Civilised Vice showed he died. He was completely open. He brought two of his ex-boyfriends who were still working for Telkom. Pension-age already. They did not want to be seen. The one’s a minister. Yet they sit and talk about how they had sex and they still continue to have sex. Old Alfred had more partners than I could ever have had. You should have seen all the boys running around his kitchen. They talked about how they overcame the need for permits to perform. When the township planners came to them and they would say, “No these guys dressed up as girls are because we have to practice our Zulu tradition”.

ES: That’s another way of creating a space of freedom, through humour.

SJ: The ANC and their movement must be aware of this throughout the 50s…

ZA: Mark Gevisser did an interesting movie called The Man who Drove Mandela, which is about Cecil Williams. He was a fag.

SJ: He is a white man though.

ZA: The turning point for black gay people in SA is 1987, the Delmas Treason Trial and Simon Nkoli. That changed everything. Before that there was no openly African gay men. We are not talking about the coloured moffies now. They were always around. They did Cissie Gool se hare [hair]. There’s an interesting thing about Cissie by the way, that brings us to people who will not subscribe to the identities imposed by society or movements. She is the only Muslim woman Communist elected by a predominantly Muslim area. She also came out as an atheist. The movement never thought it appropriate to identify with a woman who transgressed cultural, religious and political boundaries and occupied the place that many men would, across race and class. Not like, say, Ray and Jack Simons or Walter and Albertina Sisulu. For all her faults and contradictions, Winnie Mandela has that same politics.

SJ: Let’s go back to Simon Nkoli…

ZA: To go back to 1987. Simon smashed every taboo. He was in jail with Patrick Lekota, Murphy Morobe, Aubrey Mokoena, Popo Molefe, and he decided to come out as a fag. But not only that, among his lawyers were George Bizos, Arthur Chaskalson, Edwin Cameron, who helped with the fall-out when Simon came. You had Desmond Tutu being confronted for the first time with a black gay man. And look at Tutu’s contemporary progressive position. The thing about Simon was that he was a strange individualist, enormous even though he was diminutive in stature. And me coming from a Trotskyist position, hard-left. You would never find me going into the ANC office in a female SANDF outfit. He was amazing in that way. He organised the first Gay Pride March in the country. He had enormous respect among young gay people, among older African men who were gay.

ES: Is this not what the nationalist movement could not stand? Here is an icon who is gay.

ZA: But also it happened within. The fluidity of the UDF inside the country made it possible, while outside he would have been in the closet.

ES: Is this not the paradox though that under the dark, under a moment of oppression, we also had these huge moments of freedom and democracy … Isn’t that the thing with sexual practice in a way?

ZA: I find it difficult to transpose because for me I have also been liberated in my sexual practice. In my identity, I became gay much later. I had been sexually active since I was 10 as a man having sex with adult men. The word gay I discovered in the late 70s in my late teens. Homosexual was the word I went to look up in the dictionaries and the family planning manuals and you never found satisfactory answers. For me, I traversed personally many sexual practices with men in compounds, in prisons, with men in station toilets. A gay friend of mine at school – I did not know then that I was gay – went to my grandfather and said I saw Zackie kiss a boy in the toilet. I did not do it, but my grandfather gave me such a slap. That guy turned out to be the biggest moffie in Salt River a few years later. Any number of things you never talk about because of an environment where you never talk about sex.

SJ: How is it possible then that the public discourse on sexual identity is so conservative now?

ZA: Ruth Mompati, then ANC representative in London, attacked gay people in 1989 and Thabo Mbeki stepped in. And why did he step in? Because the anti-apartheid movement in Holland, of whom two-thirds are gay and lesbians, led by Bart Leyrink, Vons Geerlinks, al die operation vula mense was ‘n klomp moffies [the Dutch Operation Vula was full of moffies]. Peter Thatchell who is now hounding Mugabe put huge pressure on ANC in the 1980s. Mompati’s statement, the first at that level, was a dumb one and Thabo Mbeki came out and said our movement values gay and lesbian people and it is a movement of equality. He is on record as saying it. Even at the last lesbian and gay parade he sent a message of support …

ES: So what is his kak with AIDS? Here!

ZA: We’ll get to that some other time. When Mbeki corrected her, Albie Sachs and Kader Asmal were part of the line. What was also important at this time is that Ivan Toms [founder of End Conscription Campaign] comes out and so you have an enormous confluence of events. Take someone like Sheila Lapinksy who formed OLGA [Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action], and me, this Trotskyist who goes to their meetings which were very boring and there was GASA [Gay Association of South Africa] which was alienated. They nonetheless did a great job in conscientising people and mainstreaming them into organisations like the UDF. You are right that the 80s represented enormous sexual and personal freedom and racial mixing and it is the clampdown of the ANCs Stalinism that killed that. So Simon Nkoli made an African, continental intervention by giving people the courage to be out politically and that is almost irreversible.

ES: That is the significance of Simon Nkoli because he publicly broke down that essential position that gay is not African.

ZA: Winnie and the Stompie-Verryn saga. We went to the TRC and GALC made a submission against her. She made an apology and said she spoke of private and consensual sex. When Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was chair of the health committee of parliament she asked us to come and explain the health needs of gay and lesbians. Everyone was there and she invites us into the dining room and she says “Comrade Winnie wants to address you”. She tried to apologise there. I have this theory of her overtures; now that Winnie thinks the gay and lesbian committee is so powerful and it led partly to her downfall, she wants to make up. But she has contradictions. When we tried to get an ANC speaker at the Global March in Durban at the World Conference on Racism, she came and started off with a 5-minute “viva Thabo!” and I think, what the hell is going on here? And as everything else quiets down. She says “H-I·V causes AIDS!”

[Elaine has to leave at this point and we promise to continue the conversation]


First published in Chimurenga 4: Black Gays & Mugabes (Chimurenga, 2003)

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