On a beautiful Cape Town afternoon, the day before Pride, Triarc got to chat with Zakhele Mbhele over a glass of wine.
Zakhele is a member of parliament for the Democratic Alliance and currently serves as Deputy Shadow Minister of Police.
WL: You're from Natal, and then studied in Jhb. What brought you to Cape Town?
ZM: It was a combination of two things. I'd been wanting to live in Cape Town for a number of years, and a job opportunity as Spokesperson for the Premiers office came up that I was very keen on.
WL: Did you always want to go into politics?
ZM: Not always. I've been interested in politics since high school, but it was only since 2008, just before our 2009 elections, that something was galvanized in me. I realized that I couldn't afford to just be a spectator. I needed to get involved in this game.
WL: Had you come out as gay yet by that time?
ZM: Yes, I've been out since I was 18.
WL: Did that ever affect your decision to go into politics? Did you ever think of being gay as an obstacle?
ZM: Not at all. I've been very lucky. When I came out to my family and friends I've only had positive reactions and affirming responses. I've never experienced being nervous about being out as gay.
But my politics are most definitely influenced by being gay. I'm very sensitive around issues of marginalization, discrimination and victimization. I believe that politicians and the government have a roll to play in protecting human rights and therefore are key players in protecting LGBTI individuals.
WL: The first openly gay black MP - Are you tired of that label?
ZM: No. I would never want to be dismissive of it.
I know how important it is as a historic milestone.
WL: How do and did your colleagues react to your being gay?
Was there any negative reaction?
ZM: No. Certainly none that I'm aware of. I don't think most of the other MP's in my party or across parliament are really aware of it.
Those who are have chosen not to make in issue of it.
WL: When you decided to go into politics, South Africa had one of the most liberal and advanced constitutions when it came to protecting the rights of LGBTI people. Do you find that it's being practiced in day to day life?
ZM: It's a mixed picture. There are the rights on paper, and for people who have the means and resources, the rights are a reality. But for poorer and disadvantaged groups there is still a large gap between the rights in theory and the rights in practice. An example here are the hate crimes against lesbian women in the townships. Because people in poorer communities already have a higher vulnerability to being a victim of crime, being a lesbian woman in that context exacerbates that vulnerability.
If you're middle class and go to a nice restaurant with your boyfriend or partner and hold hands at the table, the waiting staff will be too polite and you will be treated at least decently for the most part. In other words your economic power overrides their personal prejudices and they know to treat you well as a customer whatever they think of your lifestyle.
So different people have different experiences to how real their rights are in their lives.
WL: What is the solution there?
ZM: A combinations of things. We need all the standard civic action stuff like advocacy, protest, public education, awareness raising. But I think the one thing that we have lacked until now, and not just regarding LGBTI rights but across a range of issues, is a culture of community dialogue. I would love to see more public meetings on specific topics. Of course one will get different voices - both for and against as well as everything in between. But it gives a platform and opportunity for people to air their views and then engage with other's views in a measured and rational and respectful way.
I have found that people who are homophobic or anti-gay are not simply responding to somebody being gay, they are responding to their distorted perceptions and stereotypes of what they think being gay is or isn't about. It's only when they get a gay person in front of them explaining and talking about themselves that they realize there is more to it and then you can start to shift peoples perceptions.
I would like to see more community dialogue on all the issues in our country.
WL: At varsity you were an activist in the LGBTI forum. Do you find that it's more difficult now in your current position? Is there a role that you have to project as Shadow Deputy Minister of Police or can you still be an activist?
ZM: I can definitely still be an activist within the positions I now occupy. Being an activist comes down to speaking out for what you believe in. I still consider myself an LGBTI activist at heart but I can't do it in the same way that I did at varsity. I'm not putting up posters and arranging rallies but holding the police accountable for their performance including how police responds to hate crimes and making sure that the police themselves don't perpetrate secondary victimization is a contribution towards LGBTI rights.
WL: It's Pride week. Do you think we still need it?
ZM: Yes. Pride will always be relevant as long as you have large sections of prejudice and discrimination against LGBTI people. The first tool of LGBTI activism is visibility and that is what pride does - It provides a platform for LGBTI people to be visible.
I think it also provides a young LGBTI person with an opportunity to plug into and be part of a community where they can fully belong - however complex that community might be.
My first Pride at the age of 19 was very significant for me. I went all alone. I didn't have any gay friends. But I knew that I wanted to be at Pride so I went by myself and I walked in the parade by myself. I enjoyed it so much that it didn't matter that I was there by myself.
Homophobia and prejudice shames and coerces gay people into being invisible and to hide. Therefore the primary counter against that is to stand up and say no I will not be silenced and invisible. You will know that I am here and you will know that I am gay.
By Will Lindeque
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