LGBTQIA+ people live in fear in KwaZulu-Natal

Being queer in impoverished areas means facing the threat of murder or violent assault daily. As activists rally to make this discrimination a hate crime, it is too late for many.

Anele Bhengu, 28, was found murdered on 13 June, the latest victim of hate against LGBTQIA+ people in KwaZulu-Natal. She was a dancer and fitness fanatic well loved by her family, friends and neighbours in KwaMakhutha, 32km south of Durban. Her lifeless body was discovered in the veld outside the township. She had been raped and stabbed repeatedly. Her throat and abdomen had been slit open. 

Bhengu’s grieving family, LGBTQIA+ activists and community leaders say the attack had all the hallmarks of a hate crime, most likely perpetrated by people she knew. Activists say that in rural areas, townships and shack settlements, they are finding the bodies of violently killed members of their community almost weekly.

They say the government and its agencies, including the police, are doing nothing to stem the tide of attacks across South Africa. At least 10 people from the LGBTQIA+ community have been gruesomely killed since February.

23 June 2021: Busi Bhengu shows the last call she made to her sister Anele Bhengu. Busi raised Anele after their parents died when the siblings were still very young.

The death list is long and continues growing. It includes Bonang Gaelae, 29, whose throat was slashed in Sebokeng on 12 February; Nonhlanhla Kunene, 37, whose body was found half naked in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg, on 5 March; Sphamandla Khoza, 34, who was beaten, stabbed and had his throat slit on 29 March in KwaMashu, Durban; Nathaniel “Spokgoane” Mbele, who was stabbed in the chest in Tshirela, Vanderbijlpark, on 2 April; Andile “Lulu” Nthuthela, 41, whose mutilated and burned body was found on 10 April in KwaNobuhle, Gqeberha; and Lonwabo Jack, who had just celebrated his 22nd birthday on 17 April and whose lifeless body was found on a pavement the next day in Nyanga, Cape Town. 

A lesbian couple was refused service at a health facility after they had been assaulted on the University of Fort Hare’s Alice campus on 16 April amid a claim that “ibutch isithathela amacheri (butch lesbians are taking our women)”. This story made it to the news, but activists say many murders and attacks against queer people don’t.

Members of the LGBTQIA+ community, doctors, artists, lawyers and students marched to the National Assembly in early April to demand that government officials act urgently to stop the violence. They also began fundraising to support families of recent victims.

23 June 2021: Busi Bhengu holds a picture of Anele Bhengu when she was a few months old.

A consortium of 23 human rights organisations, including the Gay and Lesbian Network and Lawyers for Human Rights, issued a statement titled “South Africa, it is enough!” in the same month.

“Today we still fear to simply be ourselves, to dress how we choose or to share an embrace – not only in public, but also among those who we may count as friends and neighbours. They too are our murderers; sometimes children as young as 14,” the consortium said. “Not only do we fear for our very lives, but we continue to face discrimination all around us. Social media platforms are replete with queerphobic words, threats and slurs with no consequences. Religion continues to be used as an excuse to debase our community in ways that would never be tolerated when it comes to other citizens or groups. Our state dehumanises us in police stations and government offices.

“Our community’s plight is a bloody stain spreading across our constitutional democracy and our leadership. We’ve seen a seemingly endless stream of conferences, workshops, task teams and statements, but truthfully there has been little action.” 

Hate crimes

Nonhlanhla Mkhize, director and advocacy officer of the Durban Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community and Health Centre, who also serves on the KwaZulu-Natal hate crime task team, visited Bhengu’s family and attended a court case in which a suspect had appeared.

She says attacks are more prevalent in Black or impoverished areas. People in suburbs are freer to practise their sexuality with little or no threat of attack.

“The level of hate crime has gone up significantly. There is a difference between a normal crime and a hate crime, because the person who commits a hate crime is driven by hate and therefore cannot be sentenced like a normal criminal,” Mkhize says.

26 June 2021: Nonhlanhla Mkhize, director and advocacy officer of the Durban Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community and Health Centre, says attacks on LGBTQIA+ people happen more often in impoverished areas. 

The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was introduced in 2016, but it has been languishing in the National Assembly. She says once it has been passed, a charge of hate crime could be added to those who attack and kill LGBTQIA+ people.

The police arrested Thulani Nandos Cele, 39, in connection with Bhengu’s murder after he fled to Margate. He appeared in the Umbumbulu magistrate’s court on 30 June to face charges of murder and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. Cele abandoned his application for bail, according to a National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson. The matter was remanded to 3 August for further investigation.

But Bhengu’s family have criticised the police investigation, saying they believe at least three people worked in concert during the rape and murder.

23 June 2021: From left: Thobeka Khumalo and Sihle Mchunu, Anele Bhengu’s friends, say it was very traumatic seeing Anele’s body, which had been dumped in the veld near where she lived.

Busi Bhengu, Anele’s older sister and only surviving sibling, says she can’t believe her sister is gone. “We lost our parents when she was still very young and Anele was my only family member. I struggled to help her grow up. Now I am left all alone … It is very painful. Sometimes I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. This seems like a bad dream and she will walk in through the door.”

Busi says what she saw when she was taken to where her sister’s body had been dumped will remain with her for the rest of her life. “She had been killed painfully, slaughtered like an animal, like a dog. I often imagine the pain that she went through in those last moments of her life.”

She is not the only one affected by Bhengu’s death.

Fear of being attacked

Thobeka Khumalo, 26, a lesbian from KwaMakhutha and a close friend of Bhengu’s, says she lives in fear, not knowing when the next attack will come.

“I am even scared of coming out of the house. The attack on Anele has reminded us of the danger that we face on a daily basis. I … have been threatened several times by people who told me straight in the face that they will rape me in order to change me and make me ‘a straight girl’. 

“On several occasions I went to the police station and reported boys who have threatened me, but I was laughed off by the officers and no cases were opened,” she says.

Khumalo was one of the organisers of a march held by young people, LGBTQIA+ activists and the South African National Civic Organisation on 16 June, Youth Day, demanding justice for Bhengu and calling for people in townships and shack settlements to accept queer people.  

10 July 2021: Tammy Williams is the manager of the Pride of Durban Club, which creates a safe space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Zinhle Mkhize, 31, from Umlazi township, says she often has to contend with men from her neighbourhood who threaten to rape her to make her heterosexual. “They whistle at me and make sexual remarks, telling me how they would perform sexual acts on me. I am in fear because one day these people will act on their threat. As a result, I don’t go out of the house at night.” 

Her friend Zinger Majola, 30, a gay man who lives in Mayville shack settlement in Durban, says he is attacked and assaulted on a regular basis. “I tell my attackers that they can do what they want, I am not going to change. I was born gay and I cannot change it. It is not a sin to be gay. It is not a disease. People have just got to accept and live with it,” he says.

Tammy Williams, manager of the Pride of Durban Club, says many queer people from townships and shack settlements complain about how they’re treated in their neighbourhoods. He, too, encountered discrimination when he was living in rural Newcastle and in the Inanda shack settlement.

“When I first came to the club it was known as 58 Club, and it was not a gay-friendly club. I changed it to be a … club where gay, lesbian and transgender people can feel safe because in other clubs they were not safe. Here they can do anything they like. They can hug, kiss and cuddle without being scared,” he says. “I want to appeal to straight people to accept and understand us just the way we are.” 

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