The University of Cape Town, when compared to its South African peers, is arguably a hotbed of academic and social discourse. It is a place where real-world discussions of issues affecting society are allowed and encouraged. It is for this reason no doubt that the university officially endorsed Pink Week – a five-day celebration and promotion of sexual diversity held this week.
A pink closet displayed prominently on campus was intended to be one of the focal points of the week before, that is, it was set alight in what the organisers, Rainbow UCT, called a cowardly act of arson. This comes hot on the pink heels of a furore that erupted at Stellenbosch University, 50 or so kilometres away, after their student newspaper Die Matie published a photo of two men kissing during that university’s annual kiss-a-thon.
The furore at Stellenbosch University may have come as no surprise to some given that university’s more conservative image. But at UCT, which boasts no less than five Nobel Laureate graduates, it came as a shock to most students, and Rainbow UCT called it a wake-up call.
South Africa is one of a few countries in the world (and the only on the African continent) where the rights of the LGBTI community receive near full legal protection. That legal protection, however, does not always translate into real-world protection. After gay pride celebrations last week in Johannesburg, 12 people were arrested by police at a private gathering in Vosloorus. The police are said to have used excessive force and verbal abuse to break up the party because they claimed the music was too loud. While the charges against the 12 were later dropped, this was only the latest instalment in a series of police intimidation of the LGBTI community in that township. And the so-called corrective rape is something many South African lesbians live in fear of.
Yesterday though, UCT students, both gay and straight, took back Pink Week with a protest on the steps of the university’s famous Jameson Hall where a memorandum was handed over to university management requesting that they take swift and decisive action.
There are, however, some dissenting voices on team rainbow who argue that the closet was divisive and excluded those whose mindsets it sought to change, those to whom the good of sexual diversity was being promoted in the first place. This is of course not a new conundrum to the gay rights struggle but one that remains unanswered. How do you pet a mad dog? Do you rub its fur the wrong way and hope it eventually likes it, or do you try more subtle tactics? Or do you just ignore it completely and carry on lolling happily in the garden? (Sidebar: I’m of course not calling anti-gay protesters mad dogs, of course.)
Perhaps by burning down the closet, the cowards have created a new opportunity for South Africa’s LGBTI community, or Rainbow UCT at least, to reexamine at the way it engages those who may not agree with its views – and another opportunity for UCT to carry on its tradition of robust discussions of social and political problems facing the country.
The charred remains of the old pink closet were not thrown away. They were reused in the new (albeit less fabulous) pink closet. The phoenix from the ashes metaphor comes to mind here, except this one had on its side Christina Aguilera lyrics. Thanks for making me a fighter.
A public meeting to discuss the Vosloorus arrests and develop a plan of action will be held at the Love Life Offices at the J Dumani Community Hall in Ext. 14 in Vosloorus on Saturday, 9 October from 12h00.
For further details contact:
Treatment Action Campaign
072 064 4157 / 011 873 4130
Lesbian & Gay Equality Project
082 660 0723 / 011 487 3811
Forum for the Empowerment of Women
072 023 7271 / 011 339 1867