When You Come Back, I Might Be Dead — 2017

Last week, I returned from a three-week reportage trip to Johannesburg, South Africa. Thanks to my fantastic fixer and confidante Matshidiso "Manika" Mofokeng, I was able to kick ass, take names, and pretty much finish up the South African chapter of my Lesbian Lives Project book series. All that's left for me to do now is to transcribe a ton of interviews and edit five years worth of copy ... which I will do with pleasure. Making a book is so much fun! (I'm being serious: There is nothing more satisfying in the world to me than seeing a book slowly come together.)

I first heard the term “corrective rape” when traveling in South Africa as a tourist in 2011. I was talking to a friend in Johannesburg about the lesbian scene there when she very briefly told me about the phenomenon. Young black lesbians from townships are raped and sometimes killed by a man or a group of men, to teach them a lesson, to turn them into “real”—meaning: heterosexual—women. These hate crimes, for various reasons, are rarely persecuted, even though the South African constitution protects lesbians from discrimination and grants them full equality.

 
I was shocked to learn about this and planned to return to Joburg with a journalist to report on one or two case studies. I hoped to find out more about the discrepancy between the progressive South African laws and the dismal situation on the ground for lesbian women.

 

In 2012, accompanied by journalist Stefanie Rigutto, I met the lesbian women Nokuthula “Thuli” Ncube and Tumi Mkhuma. Both are “corrective rape” survivors. We interviewed and photographed them for annabelle and left with the promise to stay in touch and visit again. When we said goodbye, Tumi remarked, “When you come back, I might be dead.” This simple, harrowing statement has haunted me ever since. After this short first visit, I was committed to investigating further and documenting the women’s lives in the years to come.

 

In 2014, I reconnected with Thuli and Tumi, interviewed them in detail and photographed them at home and at work. Through them, I met other lesbian women and documented also their stories during subsequent visits. For five years, I have investigated in depth what it means to live as a black lesbian woman in Johannesburg today.

 

 

Tumi Mkhuma, 30, Katlehong

 

“Your life stops in the moment you’re raped. It’s an incision. You have to dig yourself out of that hole again and prove to yourself that you, your life, still has worth. You have to fight to win back your dignity. (…) I’ve healed but there are days, once in a while, that, you know…. My mind captured everything at that moment, so sometimes it comes up.

 

Thankfully I didn’t kill myself. God gave me the strength to overcome. I don’t really know how I managed, but I always give thanks that I’m still alive and kicking. I no longer cry.”

Nokuthula Ncube, 36, with her daughter Nobuhle, 13, in Braamfontein

 

“If I didn’t have Nobuhle, I would have finished school, I’d do whatever I wanted to do because there’d be no one I must care for. I’d be having fun, being myself and going wherever I would want to go. Sometimes I would like to go on a holiday, but Nobuhle needs things, and then I forget about myself and spend money on her. Nobuhle is almost 14 now! She’s not interested in boys, at all. If she turns out to be a lesbian, they won’t be happy about it at home. For now, all she cares about is soccer, school and church.”

Nokuthula with her mother Julia, Soweto

 

“After I lost the baby, and I told my mother that I was raped and got pregnant, no one cared about what happened. Everyone just kept quiet about it. I thought that my family didn’t care about me. No one ever asked me: ‘How are you feeling? Is there anything you would like us to do?’

 

At school, I was worried about what everyone would be thinking because I missed classes. I was worried that they would blame me for the abortion…. That’s also a reason why my performance at school dropped. Like I told you, I tried to kill myself three times. Fortunately I didn’t succeed. But everyone just always keeps quiet.

 

I don’t have support, and I never had it. If my family had pushed me to go back to school…. I never had it. I don’t want to lie: My mother and my grandmother have always kept quiet. After the rape, I cried all the time, and I always wanted to be alone, I stopped going to church, I stopped playing soccer: I was very depressed. My mother sent me to see a counsellor, but the counsellor moved away after two sessions and that was the end of therapy for me.”

Thuli during a sport’s program at Bubbly’s crèche in Protea Glen, Soweto

Duduzile Zozo’s case file and crime scene photos, Thokoza police station

 

Duduzile Zozo was a black lesbian woman from Thokoza, an Eastern Johannesburg township. At the time of her death she was 26 years old. Her body was found in the courtyard across the street from her house on June 30th, 2013. She was raped and killed; the perpetrator rammed a toilet brush into her anus. Clearly, this was a hate crime; Duduzile was another victim of “corrective rape” by a man who thought that by raping and killing her, he could convince her and other lesbians to become straight and—in his eyes—“normal.”

 

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in general. It’s also called “the rape capitol of the world.” I was shocked to find out that a woman in South Africa has a higher chance to be raped than to learn how to read. Poor black women living in townships are generally more vulnerable in their everyday life than black men or white women, because they are less in control of their own finances. And poor black lesbians in townships are likely to live isolated, without much support from their community or their families, and are therefore especially at risk of being targeted, for example when they have to walk home late at night instead of being able to pay for a taxi.

 

Rape survivors often become pregnant or HIV-positive as a result of the rape. Many victims are afraid of going to the police and report the crimes because they fear secondary victimisation: Being ridiculed by the cops, or even being accused of deserving to be raped because they dress and look like boys.

 

Duduzile’s killer was apprehended and later sentenced due to a, for South African standards, unusually thorough and diligent investigation.

Duduzile Zozo’s case file, Thokoza police station

Retired police colonel Johannes Mbeka in his house in Rondebult. Mbeka investigated Duduzile’s death and subsequently found and arrested her killer who now serves 30 years in prison.

 

“Her mother didn’t hide the fact that Duduzile was a lesbian. In fact, I was told that she was open about it and that she has accepted her, as have the other family members. When a lesbian is murdered, and you attend to her case, you have to take that fact into account and treat it with courtesy. The purpose of an investigation is also to stop that thing from going further: The people involved in those crimes must know that the law cannot accept that.”

Duduzile Zozo’s parents Thuziwe and Petros and sister Zukisani by her grave, early Sunday morning, Kromvlei cemetery, Brackendowns

Zukisani and Thuziwe in their shack in Thokoza.

Another interior view of their shack in Thokoza. Four adults and four kids live here.

Lesbian activists Nompilo Benghu, Matshidiso Mofokeng and Mahlatse “Sweeto” Makgai picketing in front of the High Court in Johannesburg during the Jon Qwelane hate speech case on March 6, 2017.

Matshidiso “Manika” Mofokeng, 28, Vosloorus

 

“There’s more violence and substance abuse in Vosloorus now and since you were last here, and two lesbian women were murdered there recently. I’m still going strong as an activist, though. Sweeto and I have founded the VA, the ‘Vosloo Activators Supportive Movement’. It’s not only about lesbians, we want to create a safe place for women in general. ‘We demand equality, change, freedom‘—that’s our slogan. But monitoring all these hate crimes takes a toll on us. We’re losing hope.

 

Duduzile Zozo’s murderer was sentenced to 30 years in prison—it’s not enough. It’s not good at all. He deserves a life sentence. The South African justice system is a total joke: Oscar Pistorius received a six-year sentence for murdering his girlfriend—it’s just a slap on the wrist.”

Nomvula Twala, 23, Daveyton Etwatwa

Elizabeth Mally and Khotso Simelane in their house in Kwa-Thema. Their daughter Eudy was a soccer player who played for the South Africa women’s national team. She was raped and murdered in her hometown of KwaThema, Gauteng, in 2008.

 

As soon as Manika and I step into the house, Khotso half-jokingly, half-seriously complains: “Why do you people always come here? It’s been nine years…. Every time you come, you open up old wounds and I get upset. Your visits remind me of her. Would you think it’s fine if somebody always came to your place and asked ‘your daughter, your daughter’ and causes you pain? Will it ever stop? I get nothing. I get nothing, and you only ask questions. I’m not saying that I’m angry…. But I am human, and I must talk.”

Pictures of Khosi Nkosi, a young lesbian who was killed in Vosloorus Zonkizizwe, on December 4, 2016. So far, the police have not investigated her murder.

 

Her brother Nathi says: “Last week, or last off last week, I phoned the station and I asked to speak directly to the commander. He’s the highest ranking person in the station. The investigators called me afterwards and said they will contact me with an update before today. But they haven’t called me. There’s no investigation at all. I don’t know how these people get any work done. Sometimes I wonder if maybe the criminals bribed the Zonkizizwe police. You do hear about such things happening.

 

I don’t even know who’s responsible for the investigation. I know his name but I’ve never met him: The last time I went to the station and demanded to see him, they told me that he was on some kind of study leave, or training somewhere…. He wasn’t there. There seems to be no accounting system in place, no bosses or supervisors who check the officers’ work. We’re powerless, and helpless.”

Sunday afternoon at Sweeto’s, Vosloorus

Innocentia Mokoena, 13, Daveyton Etwatwa

 

“In our house, I’m the only one who’s trouble. I used to do things that are not allowed: play with fire, hang out with boys, steal money. My granny told me that I couldn’t stay with her anymore and she put me in rehab.

 

I don’t go to school. Last year, I was kicked out for smoking weed in the toilet. I don’t have an excuse, it’s just that I saw my friend smoking and then I started too. I wanted to forget something: I was raped last year in January, by my uncle. He raped me in our house, and then he ran away. They’re still looking for him. My sister told me later that he also raped her. She’s only nine years old. After he raped me, he said he’ll kill me if I tell anyone.

 

At the time, I wasn’t a lesbian. I only started calling myself a lesbian last December, when I started hanging out with other tomboys. In my blood, I can feel that I am a lesbian: When I dream, I see my face as a boy’s.”

Manedisa Mkwanyane, 19, Vosloorus

Nonhlanhla Matsoyane, 20, Duduza. Nonhlanhla was raped by her uncle when she was 15. When he raped her, he said: “You’re a girl. You’re not supposed to be fucking other girls!” She fell pregnant. Her son Lwandle is now 3 years old.

 

“I’m a danger to Lwandle—it’s not normal for a mother to be like that. I don’t trust myself when I’m around him, and I’m afraid to hurt him. But he is very sweet to me. Whenever I’m sad, it seems like he sees that, and he’ll ask: “Cry…?” I usually just ignore him and look the other way. When I cry, he comes up to me and wipes away my tears. “Thula,” he says. It means “be quiet, don’t cry” in Zulu.

 

I don’t get much time to spend with my son. I just feel useless around him. There are times when I look at him and just hate him. Deeply. I don’t want anything to do with him, I hate him. Sometimes I look at him and feel like crying, screaming, or even killing him.

 

I did think about having an abortion, lots of times. But when I went to the hospital, they told me it was too late, only that I could have a c-section. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I was scared. I went to a pastor, at some church. He told me that no matter how a baby was conceived, a child is a gift from God. It was God’s plan for me to have this baby this way.”

Nompikiso Dludlu, 21, Duduza

 

“I’m tired of being insulted by people almost each and every day. It’s time to put a stop to all of this. I won’t keep on running away from who I am; I will stand up for myself. I didn’t choose to be a lesbian. Being a lesbian is something you grow up with, it’s something that’s inside you. I am like this.

 

I’m not going to change just because people are not comfortable with the way I am. In any case, it’s not their business, it’s mine. And it’s not like I beg for anything: I’m not causing any pain to anyone by being me. I don’t care what others do with their lives, why are they concerned about mine? Don’t they have anything else to worry about?”

Dieketseng “DK” Mohatlane, 29, Vosloorus, Somalia Park (Wolf)

 

“I met Doctor in October 2013. He was an old man. I was very, very, very hungry that day. He gave me ten rand. I bought a beer and drank it. I said ‘Thanks for the drink,’ and I stood up to leave. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you’re coming with me.’ I thought to myself: ‘What if this guy wants to rape me? Or kill me? What will I do?’ But because I didn’t have a place to stay and no money, I followed him to see where he would take me. Yes, I was scared. But I didn’t have any money…. We came to Somalia Park. That’s how I ended up here.”

Maponini “Spokes” Ntsala, Vosloorus

Lebo Dinah Tshoma, 23, Kwa-Thema

 

“When I date a guy, I’m bored with him in the first three months. With girls, I don’t. I don’t feel the relationship with a guy—I just date him to please other people. But it’s annoying dating someone just to prove a point. Yes, I can date guys. But do I love them? No, I don’t.

 

With a girl, I start a relationship knowing that I’m in love with her. I can share things with girls.”

Refilwe Tsotetsi, 21, Vosloorus

Saturday afternoon in Vosloorus

 

To view earlier photographs from this project, click here.