The TRUE Africa 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today and tomorrow. We’re featuring them over 100 days and we’ve asked each of them three questions.
Zanele Muholi is a photographer and visual activist who turns her lens on queer Africa. In much of her work, she documents LGBTI life in post-apartheid South Africa.
What would you say to a young woman thinking of coming out?
I would suggest not coming out until you are ready to do so, until it is safe to do so. If you are around 16 to 20 years old, you must know that there are many hate crimes, especially in a country like South Africa, where we don’t have many shelters for the LGBT community. So you must realise that you should first get an education and ideally a job before coming out.
In a country like South Africa, where there is high unemployment, if you don’t have an education or a job, then you need to chill. And if that means that you need to keep living with your parents until it is safe to come out, then that is what you will have to do.
It’s about showing people who can bear witness that it’s not going as projected in the constitution
I, for one, came out by default. I had an abusive ex-girlfriend who used to beat me up, to the point where I had to call my mum. My mum said to us, ‘If you love each other, you should fight for and not against each other.’ My ex-girlfriend’s answer was that she loved me so much that she was afraid to lose me; that’s why she beat me.
Talking about that reminds me that it is difficult to find a space in South Africa that is open to listening to people who have complaints in same-sex relationships. So if you come out, it must be in front of people who are willing to accept you, respect you and recognise your difference.
Homosexuals are bullied in schools and churches all the time, especially when confronted with families who are dealing with their own challenges on a daily basis. It is important to remember that when you come out, you don’t come out alone. You come out with your family, with your friends, and with everyone around you.
You’ve talked about violence towards members of your community. Is your camera your weapon?
Absolutely, it is. It is, because I was able to write back, to talk back. The camera allowed me to give evidence that so much brutality exists. It allowed me to shame and to show what is really happening, including our own frustrations.
People say, ‘We keep hearing about hate crimes, but we’ve never seen it.’ So the photo is the evidence. It means that hundreds, even thousands of people get to discover the truth.
I want to pay tribute to my late mother, Bester Muholi. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be in conversation with you today.
It’s about not speaking alone; it’s about showing people who can bear witness that it’s not going as projected in the constitution. Our new South African constitution is supposed to be one of the best in the world, but it is not protecting everyone.
And the kind of violence that I show, that I talk about, it’s the kind of violence that exists all over the world. I am not just looking at it from a South African perspective, because the same applies to other countries, including America.
Who’s your African of the year?
I don’t need to think too hard about this one. In general, when we talk about men or women of the year, we always think about public figures and celebrities. But we also need to talk about other people, who are not famous.
I want to pay tribute to my late mother, Bester Muholi, who was born in 1936 and died in September 2009. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be in conversation with you today. She was my everything. And she will always be my everything – before the girlfriends that I meet along the way, and before the fame and fortune, which happens to last for about… two minutes.
Catch her on Twitter @MuholiZanele
Come back tomorrow for the next TRUE Africa 100 and keep up to date using the hashtag #TRUEAfrica