A mother fights queer bias in South Africa

Mally Simelane

This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG—She remembers the day as if it were yesterday. But her recollection stops at the sight of all the blood.

It was Freedom Day 2008, “about 9 am”, she says. The cops knocked at her door. Her daughter was dead, they said. Murdered, they said.

Her son traveled with her in the back of the police car to where her daughter’s body lay; the field where her daughter “was sleeping”.

Making his way through the throngs of curious onlookers (“that field was full, full of people,” she says), her son went to identify the body. He returned to the police van a little while later, caked in his sister’s blood. Having seen it was indeed his sister, dead in the field, he had scooped up what he could of her congealed blood and stuffed it in his mouth.

Hands and face covered in blood, he stumbled to where his mother waited anxiously for news that the body was not her daughter, not her Eudy. But the sight of the blood and the news that it was her daughter “sleeping” in that field was too much for her. “Ma, they killed my sister,” he had said. She lost consciousness.

“I don’t remember anything after that,” says Mally Simelane of the day her daughter — former Banyana Banyana player, Eudy Simelane — was brutally murdered after being abducted, beaten, gang-raped and stabbed several times.

Simelane remembers how, the next day, she and her husband were barred entry to the mortuary.

“There was a board outside that mortuary saying we, her parents, were not allowed to come in. My son and my sister went in and asked them why. They said, ‘No, no, no … the mother will go mad or die if they see what we see. The way they have stabbed her. Those holes.’ There were so many holes in my daughter.

“They killed a professor that day. She was brilliant. A very strong woman,” she says as we sit in the parish house of KwaThema’s Central Methodist Church.

Known as a hotbed for homophobia, the township, about 40km from Johannesburg, has witnessed numerous brutal and headline-grabbing hate crimes. In 2009, Girlie Nkosi was stabbed a dozen times. In 2011, Noxolo Nogwaza was stabbed with broken glass, her head beaten in with chunks of concrete.

Simelane’s main weapon in the fight against the homophobia so prevalent in the township is the thing she holds dearest, next to her children: her religion.

The soft-spoken yet sprightly 73-year-old is, according to the church’s pastor, Smadz Matsepe, “one of the chief activists” in the area.

Head of the Methodist Church in KwaThema Smads Matsepe. Photo by Delwyn Verasamy/M&G.

“She helps parents who don’t understand these children, you know?” says Matsepe.

Dressed in a light-blue shirt, khaki chinos and a gold earring adorning each ear, Matsepe does not fit the archetypal “pastor” image. His appearance echoes his ethos as a minister.

“I didn’t choose to become an activist,” he smiles. “It was really circumstances.”

These circumstances include being introduced to a parishioner, a young man who insisted on being addressed as “Queen”.

Recalling this introduction to an openly gay man, Matsepe laughingly admits his initial confusion. “I went to some of the people in the church, who were health practitioners like nurses or whatever, and asked them whether this thing was just a fashion or if it was natural. They explained to me and then I had a better understanding.”

Another circumstance that led to his realization that the KwaThema community needed to accept queer people was Eudy’s murder.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says, as he sits in the church he has headed for 12 years. He remembers Eudy regularly attending Sunday morning services, along with about 1 000 other parishioners who, on any given Sunday, fill the church with its pastel-pink interior walls.

“At Eudy’s memorial service, this church was packed. Packed. Lots, lots of gays and lesbians. Lots of the children,” he says.

Both he and Simelane refer to lesbian and gay people as “the children”.

Welcoming “the children” to the service and the church, he says, made them “kind of fall in love with the church”.

“They said: ‘Woah, our churches reject us; we have never been so warmly welcomed.’ They started becoming active in the church. At some stage, they were so excited. They said: ‘We want our own service in the morning before the other service.’ But I said: ‘No, that would defeat our cause, because you must not be the Other. You must be part of everything. Let us have one service where there’s no discrimination, you know?’”

Simelane describes how a young woman asked her to accompany her to her parents’ home to break the news of her sexual orientation.

“I went to the house, called her mother and said: ‘Accept her, she is not the only one.’ We spoke for a while and the mother said to me: ‘Ma Simelane, we are so glad you could come to explain this. We see her. She is different from the other children.’”

The young woman had just been confirmed and Simelane laughs when she recalls how, while she was speaking to the mother, the young woman had slipped away — desperate to change out of the high heels and “very nice” navy dress into denim jeans and All Star takkies.

“And the way she walked when she was in those clothes — those jeans and takkies — you could see that, ja, she was comfortable now.”

When asked how many families she has assisted in this way, Simelane says: “Sjoe … so many. Many, many, many. Some parents are scared, scared to accept these children … They think their children have demons in them.”

Matsepe adds: “That is what the charismatic churches preach.”

The increased number of evangelical churches in KwaThema (“a lot, a lot”, says Simelane) has dented the work done by the two. “Some of the sermons they preach are really harmful. It sets our work back,” says Matsepe.

Although the Methodist Church has yet to take an official position on homosexuality and gender expression, Matsepe says that “there are many pastors who support these children”.

“There are very hardened views, you know, from both sides. But at the moment, the official position of the church is that marriage is between a man and a woman. But the debate goes on,” he says.

Evangelical churches are often much less inclusive. “I’ve heard some of these children saying they’ve been chased away by some of these churches,” he says.

Simelane sighs as she adds: “You know, the boys that killed Eudy, they were going to those churches.”

Does she think the messages preached by their churches resulted in the way they viewed Eudy’s sexual orientation?

“I don’t know,” she says, a sad smile crossing her face briefly. “I really don’t know, but [what these churches preach] makes our work harder.”

Undeterred, the two push on.

“You know, our calling is to minister to everybody,” says Matsepe. “It may be uncomfortable, but it is not difficult because we understand clearly what our calling is.”

Simelane says: “For me, doing this is how I heal myself. It is like Eudy is refusing to die. She is waking us up. My daughter might be sleeping, but she is waking us up.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.

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