Finding belonging at SA’s new queer shelter

The mother and daughter behind the newly opened haven for LGBTQIA+ people in Ekurhuleni have created a sanctuary for those seeking a sense of home.

It is not what I expected. The address is correct. But as I stand outside the tiny, nondescript house from which the laughter  of women sounds, nothing about it hints that it is a shelter – especially not one for destitute queer people. 

“You made it. Welcome, welcome,” says Thabisile Msezane, 68, hugging me as I step into the house. She introduces me to the five or six women smiling at me from their seats on the sitting room’s modest furniture. 

The women, Msezane explains, are just a few of the members of Lerato la Basadi, the organisation she established six years ago. Made up of church women, the group travels the country – “wherever we are asked to assist” – to conscientise and support parents of queer children. 

20 January 2022: A resident at the Turning Tides queer shelter says living there has improved her mental health. 

“You must see us when there are hate crimes cases. At the courts, they know us. They know us very well. We always go to those courts – wherever they are – and protest. Then, before they hand down the sentence, we will find a corner and pray and pray … for justice to be served,” she says.

On the day I meet them, the women are gathered in a three-bedroom house in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg, to pray for the newly established queer shelter, Turning Tides. In a discussion on the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on relief efforts for queer people in need, Roché Kester, director of the LGBTI and others desk in the office of the Gauteng premier, noted the dearth of shelters for LGBTQIA+ people in the country. Turning Tides, which can accommodate 16 people, is one of only two such spaces in South Africa. The other is Cape Town’s Pride Shelter Trust. 

Praying for success

In the cramped lounge, Msezane opens the prayer session. “It is only God [who] can give protection from above,” she says. “And therefore this prayer is meant to really ask God to look after … these people who now live here. And look after this place and just hide them under his wings. To hide them because they have had enough of pain and suffering and being ostracised. So if this place is to be home, if this place is to be a place where they can say ‘at last we are free’, we must be sure of its safety. Let us pray…”

With their heads bowed and hands raised, the group of women deliver impassioned prayers, each one louder than the next.

Later, Msezane explains that after her daughter, Nandi, approached her to use the house as a shelter, it took two years of planning to open. The house, which Msezane bought in the early 1990s, has had many iterations, first as a children’s home, then as a safe house for survivors of human trafficking.

“After that, I’ve been renting out the house,” Msezane says, “but the tenants have treated it badly. You know, the last tenants, after they left, I found footprints with mud on the ceiling. The sink was rotten. I have spent so much money on this house.”

20 January 2022: After becoming homeless in 2020 and again in 2021, a young trans woman is using the shelter’s weekly therapy sessions to process her trauma. 

The house is indeed the worse for wear. Curtains hang from broken rails, the kitchen taps don’t work, electricity supply is patchy and the stove stands unused – food is made on a gas cooker on the kitchen floor. 

But for the first three residents, these are minor inconveniences – the shelter has only been open for two days after all. Before this, residents were housed in Msezane’s Benoni home.

After the women’s group complete their prayers, Unathi*, 24, a young trans woman, and one of the shelter’s residents, turns to the women and the founders of the shelter. “Siyabulela on behalf of everyone,” she says. “I hope everyone who’s gathered here – like the prayer we just had – is going to work. At times, of course, we are not going to agree on everything. But, like you said earlier, if we do not agree with each other, at the end of the day, just being able to sit down and talk things out will always aid us moving forward. And help us to welcome the people who’ll be here in future. Sibulela kakhulu ngobukho bakho. [We are very grateful for your presence.]”

Unathi became homeless in 2020 because of “the abuse and rejection that I endured at home”. Reaching out to her friends and people on social media, she gathered enough money to secure temporary shelter. But in 2021, she was yet again without a home. “It was then that I was fortunately referred to the shelter by [activist and filmmaker] Bev Ditsie.”

But it was difficult coming to a shelter, she says, “because I’ve been through homelessness before and I never imagined myself being back in that situation, you know? So it [feels] like I’m becoming a charity case to people. A burden.” 

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She pauses to light a cigarette. “I still struggle with that.” Unathi has recently come to understand the enormous trauma she has experienced in a short space of time. Without the language to articulate it, she has what she calls “mini breakdowns … where you are just like, ‘What is going on?’” Lately, though, she has been feeling more mentally stable. 

Another of the shelter’s residents, Qaqamba*, 33, says that her mental health has also improved since moving to Turning Tides. “I was spiralling, mentally” she says. “And I also was worried because I have a child … and she was very affected [by my mental health]. But right now, she’s … so comfortable and so happy.

“Here, it’s just like a family unit. Yes, everybody has their own issues. But it’s not like it was before, where you feel like you are an outsider. You feel like you don’t belong, you know? And I think that’s been one of my things: belonging.” 

Fearing for her life, Azola*, 28, fled a small town in KwaZulu-Natal after repeated threats were made against her. Despite the move keeping her out of harm’s way, the trans woman says coming to the shelter was tough. “When I arrived here, it felt like there was a divide between my … blood family and myself.” She was unwell and disoriented for five days before settling in. “What is really comforting is knowing that we can actually reach out to Nandi and that she will be able to provide for our needs.” 

20 January 2022: This resident arrived at the shelter after fleeing a small town in KwaZulu-Natal where her life was threatened.

Healing at home

Providing for the residents’ needs is certainly no easy task. But Nandi Msezane, 40, the shelter’s operations director, juggles her duties admirably. Between trying to get an electrician in (“Next week it’s the plumber”) and lightheartedly arguing with her mother on the phone (“But why can’t I plant veggies in the front?”), she fields calls from the organisation’s partners about potential residents in need of help. 

“Looks like we have another resident coming soon,” Nandi says. “They’re lesbian and their family had them institutionalised. They have a child and the family also had the child taken away.” 

Running a shelter is not only physically and emotionally taxing, but it also costs a lot. “We run this on a wing and a prayer,” Nandi says, adding that the shelter has secured some funding from grant-making organisation The Other Foundation, their only donor so far. They would like to build partnerships with companies that have a commitment to LGBTQIA+ work. 

“For us, it’s about looking at both the mandatory donations for sustaining and running the shelter as well as how to partner with institutions to ensure that our residents are able to go through the shelter and leave on the other side … able to restart their lives.” 

To ensure residents learn how to cope better, the shelter emphasises mental health support. “We want our residents to understand that they may be with us for six months, or however long, but we ask them to commit to continuing the therapy that we provide, even if they’re not in the shelter, for at least a year,” Nandi says. “You need to … be consistent with working on yourself.” 

20 January 2022: Residents put up an intersex flag in one of the rooms at the Turning Tides queer shelter.

For Unathi, the weekly therapy sessions are like a conversation with a friend, making her feel less alone in her struggles. “You don’t get time to … process everything, because life is so fast-paced. But when you look back, you’re just like, ‘I actually dealt with so much. And I have not processed so much of it. I therefore need to sit down and face the reality of the fact that I’m still healing.’ And that’s exactly what the therapy sessions feel like.”

Having concluded their business for the day, the women’s group leaves. As soon as they go, Black Labels are cracked open and stories exchanged. Later that night, I head to my room, where I fall asleep to the sound of raucous laughter.

The next morning, laughter again fills the house. It is not yet 6.30am and already the residents are up and cleaning. Jesting is in full swing. 

Later, as all of us sit in the shade of the tree in the front yard, discussing everything from last year’s “problematic” Feather Awards ceremony to Zonke’s “amazing voice”, Unathi turns to me and says: “You know, Nandi and myself spoke the other day about how a lot of people have a certain idea of what a shelter should look like. And Nandi said to me, ‘Once you have an idea of what a shelter looks like, you’re going to be living in a shelter. But once you have an idea of what a home feels like, you will live in a home.’”

*Names have been changed. 

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