“Listen, this bitch will eat your children,” Giltteris, a lithe, hairy-limbed drag performer croons into the microphone by way of introducing fellow performer Eevee Kiddo to the stage. The venue is Zer021 Social Club. Although it is a Saturday night, the venue – arguably Cape Town’s most popular drag performance space – is not as packed as when hugely popular queens such as Manila von Teez take to the stage. But this – as you might have guessed from Giltteris’s introductory quip – is no run-of-the-mill drag night.
This is a night in which a defiantly “untucked” drag queen simulates cunnilingus with a bunny-eared queer boy while her Capitec bank account details and the words “tip me” cheekily flash on the screen behind them. Where an impossibly tall, kimono-wearing queen – looking something akin to an anime character – mimes to Goldfrapp’s Utopia (the lyrics “fascist baby” flashing intermittently on the screen). This is an event where a drag king in military uniform strips down to nothing but a glittered pink tank top and matching jockstraps. Drag singer and performer Odidiva opens the show – dressed in killer heels and a doek – looking like a queer African deity breaking into the occassional kwassa kwassa move, while belting out a frenetic version of Madonna’s Erotica. It is a night where a neo-burlesque performer, dripping candle wax over herself, writhes to the grinding guitar of a hard rock tune, while queer boys saunter around, rocking leatherette pants and I’ll-slice-a-bitch shoulder pads.
Under the moniker Outskirts, the monthly event is the brainchild of Tazme Pillay. A 24-year-old who hails from Durban, Pillay says he was approached by co-organiser Kiddo, who bemoaned the lack of spaces for more alternative drag offerings.
“Eevee hit me up saying, ‘I’m tired of not having spaces to perform in as a more alternative drag queen.’ You know, for drag queens who don’t do the sort of mainstream, lip-synching vibe. And I was like, ‘Fuck, yes, I agree. 100%.’ [Because] even a club like Zer021, a drag club, is dominated by girls like Manila, and what they’re doing is incredible, and they are amazing performers. But it’s a very specific type of drag. … There are queens out there who are doing drag that is a little bit more left of centre, a little bit more alternative. And definitely things that are not going to have as wide an appeal as Manila’s fierce lip-synching and incredible choreography – but who I think still deserve to have a space to be seen and to be explored.”
For Pillay, an added frustration is that, “for me, Cape Town’s drag scene has always been a strangely segregated space. There are two very distinct streams of drag that exist in Cape Town. There’s this stream of, to be frank, very white drag, where all they’re doing is appropriating Ru Paul’s Drag Race in a lot of ways. Then there’s the drag that comes from the coloured girls, where there’s this whole tradition behind it of balls and pageants and, of course, the trans coloured community back in District Six that started creating a community for themselves.”
The District’s legacy
It is this community – which undoubtedly cemented Cape Town’s position as South Africa’s drag capital – that once again came under the spotlight in 2018 when the District Six Museum, in partnership with Wits University’s Gala Archives, staged the exhibition Kewpie: Daughter of District Six. A collection of photographs sourced from more than 700 photographs and negatives housed at Gala, the show featured more than 100 photographs centered around queer icon Kewpie – a popular hairdresser and drag performer – and the broader queer community of District Six at the time. Gala director Keval Harie says the collection of images, which date from the 1950s to 1980s, is “quite an extraordinary documentation of a history and heritage that isn’t often told”.
On the second floor of the museum’s Homecoming Centre, Tina Smith, the show’s curator, flicks through a well-thumbed copy of the exhibition catalogue.
“It was the most fascinating project I’ve worked on in a long time,” Smith says. “It uncovered a lot of areas of District Six that were not necessarily foregrounded in our vision of District Six. And a lot of that was really around space and the claiming of space.”
This claiming of space was made easier, Smith says, because in District Six there had been a long-standing tradition of drag being accepted.
“Historically, this didn’t just land out of nowhere. It’s been part of a culture. There were pictures taken in the 1940s already of these pageants and what they called ‘moffie concerts’. So there was a long culture around it. It took on various forms. And it wasn’t something that was put on just sommer. It was well-choreographed, it was staged, it had all the different kinds of expertise that are needed for putting shows together. We’ve got all these names for these people nowadays – managers, set designers and so on. But then, people were doing this outside their formal jobs, you know. And this became a cultural thing in the community. I was told about old Muslim ladies making the girls’ dresses and stuff. So, you see, people were comfortable with the idea and would all kind of pull together [around it].”
This generally accepting nature of the District Six community, Smith says, allowed for queer folk to express themselves more freely.
“People were not hiding away from expressing themselves and claiming that space – they were really claiming it. Because if you think about apartheid and how it denied us certain spaces, just imagine the difficulty of being queer.”
In addition to outlawing same-sex relations, the apartheid regime slapped drag performers – and those who chose to express their femme gender identity through their everyday dress – with an added legal hurdle. The Prohibition of Disguises Act of 1969 made it illegal to “pass oneself off as a woman”.
In her Hanover Park home, Sandra Dee lets out a throaty laugh as she recalls how, on numerous occasions under this law, she was arrested.
“Ja, it was compulsory for you to wear pants because, by law, you could not wear a dress or false breasts. I used to get picked up in the 1970s for ‘masquerading as a woman’. In Afrikaans, het ’n boer vir my gese, ‘Jy vermom jou soos ’n vrou, so jy sal ses maande tronkstraf kry.’ [A cop told me, ‘You’re disguising yourself as a woman, so you’ll get six months’ prison sentence.’] Once, they took me to Mowbray Police Station. The next morning, I appeared in court. When they called me, they called ‘Steven Lentoor’ and here I come with make-up on. And the judge was like, ‘I’m not looking for this. Where’s the guy? Is this a man dressed as a woman in my court? Six months in jail. Take him away. Masquerading as a woman. Vat hom uit! [Take him out!]’ I had to go to Pollsmoor. That was 1972.”
Added to these attacks on her person were those directed at District Six, the community in which she was born and raised. Dee recalls her last night there with her queer friends.
“It was me, Olivia, Mirinda and ‘Margaret Singana’ living on Russell Street with a very good friend of ours in a little out-building. And then it was the night of Kewpie’s drag. It was at the Ambassadors. It was a ball, and everything was fine. We got home at about four that morning. Then, at about nine, I was still fast asleep when I heard this noise next door. It was one of those iron balls demolishing the house next door. And when I came out, this boer says to me, ‘Hello yous. Yous better get up and out, because we coming next for this house tomorrow morning.’ So we had to take our stuff and run.”
Her relocation to Hanover Park proved to be the death knell to the days of community acceptance.
“If I must tell you what I went through …” she says, lighting yet another cigarette. “I remember coming here to Hanover Park in the 1970s. And we used to play netball here [as part of a queer netball team]. But when we finished our games, we had to run for our lives because we used to get thrown with stones. The gangsters and the people and their children used to throw us with stones. And no police would protect you, because you were a moffie.”
Creating their own spaces
Hanover Park has come a long way since. At a community centre not far from her home, Dee has put together a Valentine’s Day lunch for senior citizens. Welcoming her, the event’s MC says, “Aunty Sandra is our ouma [grandmother]. Our ‘glam ma’.” The lunch – roast leg of lamb, salt meat, mutton curry “and fridge tart and lots of salads” – forms part of the work she does through her self-funded charity, Fairy Godmother.
As the organiser of the annual Legends Drag Competition, the 62-year-old also caters to a largely overlooked segment of the queer community: older drag queens.
Her 59-year-old friend Samantha Fox is a regular participant. “I believe if Samantha gives up beauty competitions, she’d be gone. Because this is her life. She’d be a goner. Because it keeps her going,” Dee says.
At last year’s Miss Las Vegas Lounge Legends pageant, held in a Mitchell’s Plain nightclub, Fox was one of approximately 15 contestants who busied themselves in the makeshift dressing room. Preparing for a shot at the crown, no-longer nubile bodies were squeezed into bathing costumes and evening wear and all-important final touches were made to hair and make-up.
Strutting gracefully onto the floor dressed in a white swimming costume, Fox was greeted with rapturous applause.
Taking the microphone, in response to one of the MC’s questions, Fox said: “I’ve been doing this for almost six decades.”
“Ooh, daai Hollywood voice! Sy’s ’n regte diva, ne? [Ooh, that Hollywood voice! She’s a real diva, hey?],” someone remarked.
The pageant for drag queens 40 years and older offers a welcome respite from what Dee and Fox feel is a youth-obsessed drag scene.
“Young people today would say, ‘Hier is die ou goed alweer’ [‘Here come the old things again’] or ‘Wanneer gaan die ou moffie ophou?’ [‘When will this old queen stop?’] But, you know, we paved the way for them,” says Fox.
“Today, everything is too easy for the girls,” Dee adds. “If you have issues, you can go to any gay organisation. Where I come from, there was nothing. Everything was hidden away. There was nothing for us. We had to fight for our life for survival. And every day I walked the streets in drag. I did that. We did that. But for young people today, it’s like we don’t exist.”
Smith takes a more diplomatic approach. “You can’t really blame young people if they don’t know. That’s why we have institutions like this museum and others like it within our communities. I think it’s part of our task to create curiosity and awareness and really begin to illuminate the richness of our heritage. Seemingly, today, it feels like our power has been taken away from us. But these icons and legends within our communities, they are just ordinary people. But they are doing extraordinary things. Mogamat Benjamin was a missionary for pushing that knowledge.”
Benjamin was more famously known under his drag name Kafunta. In a previous report in the Mail & Guardian, Benjamin spoke, to hilarious effect, of his days as a pageant queen in District Six.
“We were always three. There was Freddy, whose name was Debbie Reynolds; Saan, who was Sharon Tate and became Mandy; and, of course, myself, Kafunta. We were always wonderful, wonderful, wonderful together.”
Life at home, though was not ideal. “My father had a problem with it. But he at least didn’t make it too much of a problem [for me], because there were two gays in the family. My younger brother was also gay. He passed away but was very beautiful. Even more beautiful than me. And he also competed [in drag competitions].”
On the streets, too, things were not all that rosy. “They would always call us names like ‘moffie’ or ‘tahoera’, which basically means you’re not a real woman.”
Still, drag was an essential part of his self-expression. “When we went out to a party … my favourite outfit was always hot pants and a lovely wedge heel. And if I wore a dress, I always wore minis, because I had lovely legs.”
For Smith, this dogged defiance is “quite moving”, given the oppressive laws of the time.
“And look, even though they might have said, ‘Oh, we are not political’, they were absolutely defiant in their attitude. There were so many restrictive and oppressive laws around them, but they simply just became more creative around it. And, I mean, can you imagine how traumatic that was? But yet they were still trying to keep it all together or trying to find something that’s going to take them out of that moment. Nowadays, when you see drag performances or pageants on the Cape Flats or wherever else in the city, it comes from a deeper tradition. Kewpie and her friends built on this tradition and took it to the next level so that nowadays we can work with abstract elements. We can take from the past and the present, and we can bring it into the future.”
A meeting point
Past and future met when Pillay befriended Benjamin. “I got really close to him. The sweetest man,” he says of Benjamin, who passed away last year. The meeting came about after Pillay was approached by the District Six museum to facilitate workshops linked to the Kewpie exhibition.
“I was really honoured,” Pillay says, “because I was amazed by this archive of photographs that we didn’t know existed. The sheer breadth of the exhibition … hundreds of photographs of this incredible person who was doing so much work for the queer community way before anybody knew it was even a thing. So for me it was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s this history that’s been lying dormant.’ A lot of the time I mention how people appropriate Drag Race or whatever. But I think its simply because we don’t really have access to a queer history of our own. We don’t really know where we come from. And we need to know that history. You need to know what people fought for before you in order for you to exist now, in order for you to fight against what is happening to you in this current moment.
“You know,” he laughs, “[Benjamin] said I reminded him a lot of Kewpie. And I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because I’m quite a flamboyant and outgoing person. Or that I’m skinny and brown. It was quite overwhelming, and I remember it scared me at first. Because I was like ‘Oh, that’s not my place.’ I mean, I’m not that icon, you know. But then eventually I realised he was just really loving the fact that people are living their true selves these days. Because that’s what Kewpie taught him to do. And I think him saying, ‘Hey Tazme, something about you reminds me of Kewpie’ came from a place of ‘I see that you are living your truth … and I respect that’.”
Correction, 26 February 2020: The article previously stated that Sandra Dee lived in Lavender Hill.
Correction: 28 February 2020: Eevee and Diva Disastar were misspelled.