On one of the warmest and brightest winter days, in full colour and with profound joy, those who believe in love took to the streets of Mbabane, eSwatini, in what is a pivotal moment in the country’s human rights history; a pivotal moment for love, freedom of self and long-overdue visibility.
Tapiwa Lapidos, an 18-year-old trans woman, grew up in Eswatini. She says she has experienced widespread discrimination, for example from taxi drivers, death threats and constant ridicule in her deeply conservative and religious country.
“I hate the term ‘conservative’, because I don’t feel that being conservative is an excuse for someone to hate someone,” she says. The overwhelmingly conservative nature of eSwatini has been the biggest obstacle to overcome in terms of visibility and open living for the LGBTQI+ community in the country. For many years, pastors, government officials and civilians have repeatedly and consciously tried to make the existence of the community invisible, throwing a variety of disparaging names and comments at the community, and even committing violence. This is why the success of the Pride March is so important – culture and tradition are no longer an excuse for the erasure of the LGBTQI+ community in Eswatini.
“I hate the term ‘conservative’, because I don’t feel that being conservative is an excuse for someone to hate someone.” – Tapiwa Lapidos
The country’s sodomy laws criminalise consensual same sex relations, which has perpetuated a culture of secrecy. Melusi Simelane, of the advocacy organisation Rock of Hope, believes this enforced secrecy stifles access to information and education. “The culmination of all of this is a society that reflects hate back at us and impacts severely on our mental health,” he says. “In such an environment, safety is further compromised by the lack of education, which is both an indictment on and a wound for the entire country,” he adds.
Rock of Hope is an NGO that focuses on advocacy of the LGBTQI+ community and spearheaded the first Pride March. It is to be expected that they faced many challenges while organising the event, given the conditions described above, everything from the lack of funding to the backlash from far and wide. This included a group called ‘Parents of Swaziland’, which started a petition to boycott the March and all associated with it.
“Although we received funding from abroad, trying to supplement costs by raising funds locally was a challenge. We also received some resistance from the police, who, at one point, did not want to be seen to be endorsing the event,” Simelane says. They received funding from All Out, an international LGBTQI+ advocacy group, whose head, Matt Beard, was present at the march.
The march began and ended on the Prince of Wales fields. Many feared possible violence but there was also excitement and hope for a march that turned out to be a celebration on the streets of the capital city. Any fear was alleviated by the strong police presence that accompanied the march – but it simultaneously felt like monitoring, sent to keep ‘deviants’ in check. Nonetheless, the march meandered through the streets, filling the air with protest songs, every step on the tar a mark on history. It was electric. Bold, even. As the march made its way through the city, many stepped out of the shops and salons to take pictures and wave at the crowd. Support from arm’s length, perhaps, but better than violence or slurs.
The importance of eSwatini Pride
In recent years the concept of Pride has been criticised for its lack of political identity, given that it was originally birthed for political purposes. The eSwatini Pride march definitely embodied the political but it was much more than that – its impact in the context of a country such as eSwatini cannot be ignored. For a moment, love and hope shone bright, lighting a way to a different future for the country’s LGBTQI+ people. The inspirational nature of the day deeply affected those who were present and those following events online.
Tapiwa believes the march achieved its first important goal: awareness and visibility. “It was a stance against oppression in our country. It pushed the idea that we need to progress as a country and not stay hidden in the shadows,” she says.
Simelane echoes her sentiments and emphasises that this was only the beginning. “This is only the first of many more statements that affirm the human rights of the LGBTQI+ community in eSwatini,” he said. He believes the work does not end here, and they will continue to engage government to strike down many laws that keep the LGBTQI+ community oppressed and in hiding.
What I took away from eSwatini Pride
Often we think that members of marginalised communities are so concerned with their excluded existence that they lead half-lives – primed for survival, with no self-actualisation possible. Yet eSwatini Pride showed the world that from exclusion, persecution and pain comes a different kind of joy, a generosity of spirit and an acute self-awareness.
In an interview with Elle magazine, Michael Arceneaux, one of my favourite black and queer cultural commentators, said, “I don’t want to talk about pathology all the time. Everyone wants us to lean into the saddest parts of ourselves and our communities and tell the world how awful it is to be black right now. I don’t want people to consume our suffering. I am not tragic. I don’t want to be pathology porn, so I don’t write it.”
eSwatini society was confronted with the “similar humanness” of those they have persecuted for so long.
The unravelling of pathology for the eSwatini LGBTQI+ community began that day when we marched in 28 degrees of sunshine, danced on the grass and occupied the Mbabane Theatre Club until early morning. In public. Openly. For a few hours, many breathed freely for the first time.
But it was an unravelling for the eSwatini society too, as they were confronted with the “similar humanness” of those they have persecuted for so long. The importance of seeing people who look just like them in the jubilant Pride March crowd cannot be underestimated. There may be no scientific way to measure the true impact the Pride March has had on the country yet, but it is certain that the day was a reprieve for a community that has survived in the shadows for a long, long time.