Beverley Ditsie comes full circle

Being granted an honorary degree for her life’s work as an LGBTQIA+ activist has validated the years that a throwaway comment made her question. Now she balances activism with art.

Beverley Ditsie has been many things in life, LGBTQIA+ activist, filmmaker, musician, actor and television producer among them. She recently earned the honorific of doctor as well, as this year’s recipient of an honorary degree from Claremont Graduate University in California, United States, for her lifelong commitment to social justice.

Sitting at a cafe in Melville, Johannesburg, an area she’s lived in for more than a decade, Ditsie often stops her conversation with New Frame to greet friends and neighbours: a restaurant owner who insists on calling her Mrs Famous, a man from Mozambique who sells sunglasses and whose financial savvy she admires and envies, and a stylish friend.

It is difficult to contain a woman as complex as Ditsie in a single profile. However, it is a life that deserves to be included in the archives of South African history and fitting that, in this moment, everything’s coming up roses for her. 

The importance of family life

The activist in Ditsie was born from a sense of curiosity awakened as a young girl growing up in Orlando in Soweto, Johannesburg, in her maternal grandmother’s home. She recollects her childhood, living with her mother Eaglette Ditsie, younger sister and grandmother’s husband, with palpable warmth.

“I’ve always been surrounded by love and I don’t take that for granted. I’ve always been lucky to be able to say that. Even when things weren’t okay at home, my grandmother has always been my rock.” 

She stops to smile. “She’s always been my life. She was well-known and a pillar of the community. We always had people around, that’s why we never really starved. I watched her suffer and struggle in so many ways.” 

Her grandmother lived a life familiar to many black Africans. Born as the eldest daughter of a single mother with 10 children, she became a domestic worker at the age of 13 and remained so until she was in her mid-60s. 

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Ditsie values the maternal figures in her life highly, especially her mother, a musician who travelled a lot and came home with stories of exploration, learning and freedom. She also values her grandmother’s husband, who became the grandfather she and her sister needed.

“My grandfather was an uneducated Tsonga man but he loved words and he loved language. He loved books. He gave us these tiny dictionaries – French, Spanish, German – and he would walk into the house and say ‘Bonsoir!’ And we’d say, ‘Bonsoir, Papa!’ In Soweto, man. He was, like, you must speak to people in their own languages around the world.”

The birth of her activism

This is perhaps what shaped Ditsie’s future, a continual effort to connect with people. Growing up, she joined the student representative council for her high school, but felt discontent at the overpowering masculinity she experienced and began looking elsewhere for a space in which to express her activism. 

“My activism was born of frustration. I was very lucky that I was also spending a lot of time with a group of beautiful queer boys and, together, we attended the first meeting of Glow [the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand]. I met Simon Nkoli. His history will still be told.” 

She played her part in sharing his story with her film, Simon & I, in which she provided details about her time with the young gay man who was a big brother to her and devoted to bettering the lives of young LGBTQIA+ people. 

“He was committed to figuring out what freedom would look like to all of us. He knew of [the] Stonewall [Riots] and all the things going on. That’s how he shifted. He initiated the first Pride March. I was loud and vocal and had all kinds of ideas, but really, it was initiated by Simon Nkoli. He wasn’t the only one. You had Donne Rundle, Terry Myburg, Justice Edwin Cameron, Kevin Botha, Roy Shepherd, Polly Motene Poswayo and Graeme Reid. I like to mention people’s names because erasure is also a thing.” 

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This non-racist, non-sexist organisation, Glow, was firmly rooted in intersectionality before the word became what it is now. “Simon said, ‘I am black, I am queer. I cannot separate these into primary and secondary struggle.’” What is that if not intersectionality? Add women, add poor. I found myself in those words. And when I found that, everything I did from then on was based on that. That was my springboard. It was where I then started challenging him.”

In these NGO spaces, Ditsie made sure people of all LGBTQIA+ identities were included, made space for other women and, most importantly, pointed out the gaps in the movement’s dealings on class.

“It was a difficult space, too, because I was bringing up things that most people didn’t speak about.  Meetings would be held in the evenings in Hillbrow. What does that mean about getting home to Soweto? That’s how Pride also got away from us. Because those meetings were being held deep in suburbia, where there were no taxis and in a time of no Uber. No one else would bring these things up. They would say not to make my issues everyone’s issues. Those are politics of exclusion. It was deep in the mix.” 

19 June 2019: Beverley Ditsie was “the first African to address the UN on LGBTQIA+ issues”.

The politics of Pride

Ditsie has since distanced herself from the Pride march (now Parade) that she helped create, backing away from the movement and its politics as a result of overwhelming personality politics, as she refers to it. She yearned for more. 

“Who was I outside the politics? Where was my career? I always thought I would become a musician but in my activism, I even stopped playing the bass, learning the guitar. I was so focused, an actor and writer for years. I was all of those things and that stopped. I dedicated my entire life to a movement.”

She looks back honestly at the time when her activist life was at its peak, aware of her depression and the toll it took being a high-profile person while struggling to make ends meet on her grandmother’s pension. “The cost of activism…” she says heavily. When asked if she was at her happiest while in her twenties, in what many may see as the peak of her career, she opens up about living with depression. 

“In the beginning, it was exciting. I was fighting a cause. It was real. It was tangible. My mind, body and soul was in it. But living on the mercy of people was exhausting to me. I think that’s what eventually took its toll. I started having to ask myself who I am outside of the activism.

“By the time I hit 27, depression had been kicking my ass so bad. I was walking around smiling a lot. Then I’d get home and lock the door and nobody would see me for a week. I was unemployed and broke and had no idea what I was doing anymore. 

“When people talk of depression and anxiety, they often say, ‘But you had everything! You were famous, you had a family that loved you, friends.’ That’s when I felt even more guilty. Because I should’ve been okay and kept giving myself a hard time, ‘You should be okay.’ But it was a lot. It was not a happy time.” 

She speaks clearly about the impact mental illness had on her, living through apartheid, being told she would never be good enough and having her gender further exacerbate the imposter syndrome she felt at the time. Her life’s work, which had not been seen as anything more than run of the mill, felt like just that to her: ordinary, mundane, regular.

Ditsie rehashes intently an incident that seemed to be a turning point for her. A young woman said to her, “You keep saying that you are representing all of us. Who asked you? I never asked you to represent me.”

“I will never forget the pain of that. To have someone say that to me, who asked you? You say you’ve sacrificed your life for the queer community, who asked you? That’s a headline for me, who asked you? 

“That question haunted me for years, it got me beating myself up. That one voice reduced my whole life’s work to nothing. When I stand there and nod, with every single sentence that the president of the university said [as he conferred the honorary degree], when I nod it was the first time I was undoing [that] damage.”

A living LGBTQIA+ icon

Claremont Graduate University president Len Jessup, speaking at the institution’s graduation ceremony, recited her life’s work: “Beverley Palesa Ditsie, with your courage and vision you have fought against discrimination and championed human rights in your home, South Africa, and around the world.” 

“As the first person ever to address gay and lesbian rights before the United Assembly, you called for the recognition of discrimination based on sexual orientation as a violation of human rights. As an advocate and key founder of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand and South Africa’s first Pride March, you have reminded us all that freedom of self-expression and identity belongs to everyone. As a director and documentary filmmaker, you have used television and film to entertain and to open minds, to educate and build bridges of understanding that are vital to our future,” he said. 

“When I first read it, I cried all night,” says Ditsie. “Those sentences broke me. I’m nodding with every sentence. I’m validating. Saying I did that, I felt like my life had come full circle.”

Ditsie is a living LGBTQIA+ icon, a neverending stream of knowledge and insight, and a curious being with a specific calling in this world, to try and make life more liveable for the young LGBTQIA+ people coming after her. 

She continues her work, balancing artistry and activism, hoping to work on a documentary about her mother’s pioneering music career soon, while also ensuring that young LGBTQIA+ people have access to information and the resources necessary to navigate the world. 

“The idea is to share. The idea is to inspire.” 

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