I kissed my sleeping girlfriend’s cheek and crept out of her house just as dawn was breaking yesterday morning. April and May in the Eastern Cape are beautiful months, but the mornings are cold. I contemplated stopping for coffee, but that would make me late to pick up Pearlie. F school-morning traffic from Amalinda. I drove directly to an old Victorian house in the still-white part of Southernwood and called her from my car. “Let me finish my coffee quickly – I’ll be out in a minute,” she said (sometimes the universe is cruel!)
The N6 is a good road in a province of truly shocking roads. It links East London with Johannesburg, passing through Stutterheim, Cathcart, Queenstown, Bloemfontein…
The two hours to Queenstown flew by. White South African lefties of any given vintage have a particular experience in common. Pearlie worked on Die Vrye Weekblad, a radical Afrikaans newspaper, in the 1980s. She had been in NUSAS at Stellenbosch. We have friends in common, and our paths have crossed once or twice before, but we had never spent any time together at all, never had a proper conversation. So we talked. What a relief to natter to someone who understands where you are coming from – that doesn’t have way-off pre-conceived ideas, and to whom you don’t have to give any background explanations.
And she is interesting.
She is friends with Mark Behr, who was exposed as a spy for the apartheid government, feeding information on his comrades, including Pearlie, on a regular basis. I asked how she could possibly forgive him? She didn’t for 20 years. The story of her process of getting to the point where she could, and could resume her close friendship after that length of time, is fascinating. And it is an incredible human story. I am not going to tell it because I really do hope that she will write about it. I’ll post a link if she does.
We were going to Queenstown for the first of the public hearings on the Traditional Courts Bill. I was there ostensibly for the organisation that employs me, but I was really there representing the Eastern Cape LGBTI Organisation.
The town hall is an old colonial building – I could just imagine Victorian balls being held there. We were early, but the room filled quickly, and soon Pearlie and I were surrounded by a sea of very old black men dressed for the main part in grey overcoats. I think the municipality cuts costs by only replacing every second light bulb when it expires. It was seriously gloomy in there.
The Bill was presented (in a very biased way), and comment from the public invited. Hands shot up. The chair took five speakers from the left of the hall. Then five from the right, then five from the left, and so on, for two hours. People were passionate. Angry. I leaned over Mazibuko’s shoulder and read his notes – he was translating on the spot. Read my tweets from the day for some vox populi.
Eventually I was selected. This is what I said:
You are probably surprised to see a white woman standing here. Perhaps you are wondering how this Bill could possibly affect me. It does. It affects me politically and it affects me personally. Politically, because I represent an organisation called the Eastern Cape Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Intersex Organisation. The ECLGBTI has amongst its members approximately 400 lesbians. I am the only white woman among them. Almost all our members have their homes in the former Transkei and Ciskei. There is a large gay and lesbian population in the rural Eastern Cape and this Bill will affect this community in a most profound way. Speakers before me have pointed out that, while the Bill states its intention to promote the rights of women, the fact that every legal issue is subject to (unspecified) traditional law makes a mockery of this so-called promotion. In many areas, women are not entitled to enter the kraal where the traditional court sits, let alone address it. A woman has to be represented by a man. While this is a problem for all women, it is a particular problem for lesbian women.
It bears repeating that our Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. And noting that earlier this year the National House of Traditional leaders made a submission to a parliamentary committee proposing that this clause be removed from the Bill of Rights. In 2006 when South Africa was poised to pass a legislative amendment permitting same-sex marriages, the Congress of Traditional Leaders vehemently opposed the amendment, stating that same sex marriage is against nature, culture, religion and common sense.
If this is what the organisations representing chiefs are saying, we can safely assume that there is no way that gays and lesbians can expect to be treated fairly in a traditional court.
On a personal level, this Bill affects me because I am in a relationship with a Xhosa woman. While we live in East London, her home is in a rural village between Mthatha and Port St Johns, so we spend quite a bit of time there with her family. When I am in the village, I fall under the jurisdiction of the chief, and am subject to traditional law. If I were to have a dispute with my in-laws, I would (in terms of this Bill) have no right to approach the magistrate’s court – I would have to approach the traditional court (and have a man speak for me). It is against the tenets of natural justice (and unconstitutional) to subject me to this system of law. I have no knowledge of the law – it does not form part of my tradition.
If this Bill is to be passed, the ECLGBTI Organisation demands that:
1) there be a provision allowing for anyone to opt out of the system of traditional law, and have the right to approach a magistrate’s court
2) that the powers of the presiding officer be spread so that they are not concentrated in one person. This way, if the chief is extremely homophobic, there remains a chance that others on presiding council might balance this.
3) there be the right to appeal, to a magistrate, against a ruling.
That is all.
Three hundred old men stared at me blankly.
I was then approached by a journalist from the local paper and went outside to give an interview. When I returned to the hall, the chairperson had finished summarising. Mazibuko said that the summary and translation of my input had been fair.
This morning, I got a circular email from Mazibuko, describing the events of yesterday. In it, he described the reactions of the audience to various inputs. Apparently, after the chair’s summary of my input, there was a murmur of dissatisfaction across the room. Clearly what I had said had not gone down well, but people had not understood it until it was translated into Xhosa.
Pearlie got a lift to Lusikisiki for today’s hearing there, and I headed back to East London alone.
The light was beautiful. I took some photographs for you. I’ll upload them tomorrow when I am at a faster internet connection. I love this province.