Monday 15 April

17 October 2012
Mark Heywood, Executive Director, SECTION27,

This film festival is a celebration of identify and freedom.
To really appreciate it we have to reflect on the history of the Gay and Lesbian Movement in South Africa. But there is not time for me to do that now.

But what is important to remember is that interestingly (but not accidentally) for a marginalised group, gays and lesbians were one of the first beneficiaries of South Africa’s constitutional dispensation: achievement of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation & gender (section 9, Equality clause); decriminalisation of sodomy; establishing right to marry. Took SA from one of the most repressive societies to one of most progressive in space of a decade.

I say ‘not accidental’ because it is important to recall that:
– Achieved this through the struggle of gays and lesbians who came from marginalised and often poverty striken communities to fight for freedom – people like Simon Nkoli, Zackie Achmat, Bev Ditsie, Edwin Cameron, Phumi Mthetwa and others;
– We all benefited from the people who fought and died for the Constitution, because they were fighting for freedom generally.

Today we have “freedom”, but we cannot be truly free in an unfree society.

I don’t want to lecture, but it is generally acknowledged that this is a time of a growing social and political crisis in our country. Marikana, not an isolated incident, but linked to crime of inequality, crisis of unemployment, crisis of deteriorating social conditions in health and basic education.

It’s true to say that for the last 18 years the poorest of the poor have delayed their demands for a better life. Postponed their own claims with the trust that a government and society that is reconstructed along the lines of the constitution, will get to meet their needs. Their trust was in you, as much as it was in the government. That trust is being betrayed.

But now has come a time when the poor are demanding, in the words of Martin Luther King, that the “promissory notes” of the Constitution, “the checks”, are cashed in, when the poor:
“refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. … refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

The message I want to deliver is that gay and lesbian people, indeed people of any and every gender and sexual preference, need to stand shoulder to shoulder with this movement, and to nudge, no to drive, society towards the resolution of the great crises of our time. The question is how?

That should not be a difficult question to answer … by active citizenry in every sphere of our lives, by respect for others’ dignity. If we do not do that the gains we celebrate will be washed away, or be vulnerable little islands to a tsunami of anger and despair. And believe me, there is nothing inherently sacrosanct about the Constitution, about our rights. Indeed, there are despots waiting to seize advantage of the legitimate anger that is welling up in our society. We have already heard the rumblings from the likes of Patakile Holomisa.

We need solidarity with the poor but we also need solidarity within this community.
We are free in Hyde Park tonight, but our brothers and sisters are not free in Katlehong. You are free in your security estates; but they are not free or safe outside of walled mansions, where hate crimes of ‘corrective rape’, murder and intimidation have free rein.

On December 18th it will be a year since the murder of Jason Wessenar. Still there have been no convictions and little investigation. Why are we silent about this denial of justice?

In this context I cannot avoid to comment on the appalling assault (for that is what it was) at Jo’burg Gay Pride on October 6th. The One in 9 Campaign was brave and right. Little more than 20 brave women were justified in trying to bring the pain and despair of 20,000 or 200,000 (we do not know) silenced ‘others’ to the party. But in response, the behaviour of the bigots mirrored the behaviour of bigotry everywhere.

This was not the type of behaviour that we see celebrated in these films. It has to be condemned. We must restore the traditions of activism, assertion and equality. That is not to deny the right to identity or celebration, but to demand and live it.

So, if we are true to ourselves we should do exactly what one bigot demanded “go back to the townships” and make sure freedom reins everywhere in South Africa.

Thank you.

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