In the second of our new series of interviews, Melusi Simelane, an LGBTIQ+ activist in Eswatini, the country in Southern Africa formerly known as Swaziland, says that the state has long denied the LGBTIQ+ community any rights or recognition. But now BLM has helped create a global conversation about rights and police brutality, he tells Fundile Maphanga, a member of Chatham House’s Common Futures Conversations community. Real change, the founder and Executive Director of Eswatini Sexual & Gender Minorities (ESGM) says, will have to start at the bottom of society, not among the privileged.
Fundile: What does Black Lives Matter mean for Africans living in Africa, particularly in Eswatini?
Melusi: The Black Lives Matter movement means something different in the African context. For me, when we say Black Lives Matter, we are not talking about the colour of my skin, but we are talking about our status in society. In Eswatini, we are battling a legacy of colonialism and underdevelopment, including newly established Black elites who are looting the resources and opportunities that are meant for all people in the country.
The Black Lives Matter movement has put a spotlight on these issues. You will hear a lot of people saying that this discrimination and violence is not new. This is true. Police brutality is not new for the LGBTIQ+ community. However, what is new is being allowed into spaces and having my voice heard when I talk about this. While we are not there yet by any means, the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed for that conversation to move forward.
How does the legal environment impact LGBTIQ+ community members?
The environment is generally hostile to LGBTIQ+ people and it makes us vulnerable to social and economic exclusion, stigma and harassment. This is because the Swazi government uses a colonial law, the common law offence of sodomy, to restrict the lives of LGBTIQ+ individuals. Most countries in Southern Africa have this too. This law is itself a main point of struggle for the LGBTIQ+ community, but the government and our institutions take it further than criminalizing a sex act. They misinterpret it to mean that our identities are criminalized.
Due to this, they will deny us our rights. They will deny us services. They will actually refuse to register any organization which wants to address the inequalities that we face as an LGBTIQ+ community. The common law offence makes it easy for LGBTIQ+ people to be ridiculed. All this is made worse by the fact that no matter how many times you try to push the government to protect us, they take us back to discussing the questions of morality, culture and religion. All this happens while we have constitutional rights that protect everyone and Swazi law states that these are universal, no matter your identity.
What have been key moments of change for the Swazi LGBTIQ+ community?
In 2018 we organized the first Pride march in Eswatini. It was not easy, but the support and encouragement of the Human Rights Commission, the United States Embassy and the Delegation of the European Union to Eswatini made it possible. This was very important for the LGBTIQ+ community in Eswatini because Pride forces conversations to take place. This is also why we made September Pride month in Eswatini as it is the month we celebrate the country’s independence. Pride is political. It is not just a celebration and a party where you wear fancy colours. It is a political statement. Pride is a riot.
Holding Pride in the month of independence highlights the fact that we missed an opportunity to decriminalize same-sex intimacy between consenting adults during decolonization. We celebrate independence and simultaneously we are still shackled by the colonial common law offence. So, in September we make a clear statement: remove this remnant of colonisation. Because it is the only thing that holds back the LGBTIQ+ community.
What are the next steps for you in improving the conditions for the LGBTIQ+ community?
I think the future is perhaps looking good. The emotional burden is tough, because a lot of the time we are the ones that have to do the work to build the bridges and to make sure people are educated and it can be taxing. However, I do believe that only through continuing to have these conversations, can we improve the conditions for LGBTIQ+ individuals.
I believe that it is not a problem to have people sharing homophobic sentiments in public. The real problem is when those sentiments are shared in private, because only when shared in public do we have the opportunity to engage and educate people. We need to start exposing people for holding horrible sentiments. This is not what many people call ‘cancel culture’. It is just to bring issues to the fore so that people can understand that while you have freedom of expression, you have a responsibility not to infringe on other people’s rights. We need to allow for divergent voices, but you cannot defile and demean other people.
How important are international movements for improving the lives of the LGBTIQ+ community in Eswatini?
It is difficult to say for sure how solidarity translates into tangible results for us, but it helps ensure our voices are heard. I keep saying to people, if you share your story then you are already a hero, because you are touching someone else’s life no matter how marginal. It is only when members of the LGBTIQ+ community or other minority groups become part of the discussion that we can come into the room without leaving who we are outside. I am not afraid to tell anyone that if you invite me into the room, you are inviting me, Melusi, the LGBTIQ+ activist.
This is how the #MeToo, Pride and Black Lives Matter movements are impactful, but they must involve the voice of the marginalized. The pursuit of social justice is hierarchical, so you cannot start with the more privileged people at the top. Everyone experiences some type of exclusion and discrimination, but for us all to move forward, you have to start at the bottom. To improve the lives of women, you have to start by improving the lives of trans women and Black trans women. That way everybody then gets pushed up.
Watch the complete interview