The LGBTQIA+ activist who cofounded the first Pride march in Johannesburg has penned a letter calling out the parade's capitalist takeover and arguing for a return to its radical roots.
Beverley Ditsie is done with being angry. It has taken the committed activist, well known for being one of a handful of people who organised South Africa's first Pride march in 1990, 20 years to speak about the legacy of the institution she cofounded decades ago. In "A love letter to my queer family", posted to her social media accounts, Ditsie breaks her silence to "mourn the loss of the dream that began the first Pride march".
With Johannesburg Pride taking place on 26 October, Ditsie, who received an honorary doctorate from the Claremont Graduate University in California a few months ago, speaks about the annual criticism the parade faces.
She comments particularly on how the parade holds corporate sponsor interests and profit above inclusion and support within the LGBTQIA+ community, while ignoring the history in which the march is rooted. "These people depend on [my silence]. They claim Pride, say they created this space and when challenged, they discredit me," Ditsie says.
Recalling the original march's roots, Ditsie writes:
"We were from different backgrounds, different races, ages, genders, orientations, abilities, etc, and it didn't matter. We were a mishmash of diverse people unified by one goal, to be seen, heard and one day be treated with the dignity and respect that is enjoyed by all other human beings."
The ethos of the original Pride march was this very defiance, nearing the end of the brutality of apartheid in 1990. There were 800 people at the march, which Ditsie, Justice Edwin Cameron, Donne Rundle, Hendrik Pretorius and Simon Nkoli addressed.
"I'm fighting for the abolition of apartheid. And I fight for the right of freedom of sexual orientation. These are inextricably linked with each other. I cannot be free as a black man if I am not free as a gay man," said Nkoli. His words made clear the intersectional nature of the space.
Ditsie recalls pushing herself forward to speak at this first march, knowing that if there was no black woman-presenting person who spoke, there would be inaccurate representation.
This political energy was carried across the first four years, after which things began to mutate. First, the march left the inner city for suburbia, because of something that can be equated to an "unsafe" feeling many with privilege had walking in the streets of town once a white exodus of sorts had occurred after 1994. The march began to grow, with further demands to make a profit to sustain itself. Entrance fees were added and, later, a switch from the politicised "march" was made to what Ditsie terms the Mandela-esque "parade". It was then that she began to carry anger within her.
But there is hope in her letter. There is a calm rage, and there is joy. There is celebration, mourning and resistance. There is a call to remember history how it happened and for accountability. This letter highlights the point of Pride as a protest, and not the party it has morphed into, punctured and punctuated by a brutal capitalism that has prioritised profits over a sense of community, which continues to be a site of exclusion.
"For the past 20 years or so, this time of the year has been very painful for me. This is the time where I am reminded of my failure as an activist and leader, and our collective failure not just as LGBTIQA people/organisations/movements, but also as a country," Ditsie writes.
A journey through memory
The failure Ditsie speaks of is rooted in a kaleidoscope of memories, cementing her importance as a living archive for the queer community, a human resource from whom we can learn much.
The memories begin when she was 13, walking the streets of Soweto with a group of her queer friends, one of whom was Reverend Paul Mokgethi. Being one of the friends Ditsie trusted with a thorough read-through before publishing her letter, Mokgethi reminds her, "Look at how far we've come."
"It was just us, and our community grew from there. Do you understand my passion for my people? We were 13/14, walking around having our own Pride and loving every moment of confusing those who couldn't figure out our genders. It was these people who got me to come to a Glow [the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand] meeting."
Founded partly by Nkoli in 1988, Glow existed as a safe and inclusive space for gays and lesbians around Johannesburg. They did expansive work, including producing a monthly Glowletter and holding multiple forums and workshops on topics varying from the media and education to safe sex and AIDS awareness. "It was [within the organisation] when I realised that there was a politics to us," she says.
A politics rooted in love
Ditsie's activism and revolutionary politics are rooted in love. Calling upon the words of Jamaican-American writer and poet June Jordan, LGBTQIA+ activist Phumi Mthethwa, African-American writer James Baldwin and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Ditsie says, "Revolutionaries are born out of a love for their people."
While this love propels her to tirelessly make strides for her community, when the Pride march she cofounded began to stray from the inclusive, intersectional and intentional space they created years earlier, she became aware of the slow erasure to come.
"I lived off anger for many years, as an activist, as a black woman, as a feminist. We are driven by anger because of so much pain that we see," Ditsie says, speaking about the cost of activism, especially for those with less power and privilege. The emotional cost of being conscious and in constant and active defiance of structural powers is enormous.
Daniel Silver's working paper exploring the factors that lead to disengagement in activism covers this and various other points. Some of these include exactly what Ditsie speaks about: patriarchal, capitalist and discriminatory structures within a community in which you have made a home feels like the most personal betrayal. Many leave activism. While it still possesses hope and optimism, the personal investment cannot be ignored.
Global exclusion and elitism
Ditsie recounts how she was glad when a few of her activist colleagues decided to stop before they burned out. This is not a new phenomenon. Barbara Smith, an American lesbian feminist, recently spoke about how she participated in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979 but has not been active in the movement for years.
"Three decades later, despite some genuine efforts to increase diversity, especially in progressive movement circles, exclusivity and elitism still divide us. We have won rights and achieved recognition that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago, but many of us continue to be marginalised, both in the larger society and within the movement itself," said Smith.
In the movement, Ditsie was called divisive, narcissistic and problematic for attempting to keep Pride's original values of intersectionality. "I always said that there would come a time where black lesbians are murdered; the more visible and prominent white men became in our movement, the more invisible and insignificant we became."
In conversation with Eusebius McKaiser on the history of Pride in South Africa, Iranti director Jabu Pereira spoke of homonormativity, asking who gets marginalised out of Pride. The very ones who started Pride are the ones who are being shut out. "Joburg Pride was hijacked to become this consumerist entity."
Audre Lorde writes: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don't live single-issue lives." Ditsie felt it was necessary to remind our community of how the original camaraderie was lost because all these issues are interconnected. Through power and privilege, the voices of those who created this space are forced into silence and have their contributions to the community minimised or completely erased to protect profits and the status quo.
Resistance and release
"Tanya Harford - then chair and main organiser - said that she didn't realise that the 12 or so black womxn standing on Jan Smuts Ave [in 2012's violent end to Pride, when activists staged a die-in to honour murdered queers] were queer. She just saw black bodies, and they spelled danger."
After 20 years of anger, of bargaining with power, of attempting to stay above gaslighting and erasure while still doing activist work through her film and television work, Ditsie says, "For the first time, I feel lighter, and it feels weird. I've been choking and this is my release."
Finally, she can now operate from a place of love for her community. This letter is only one step towards ensuring the histories of our communities, especially of those who have lived in the margins in South Africa, are preserved and shared widely.
"The role of the queer archive is to ensure that the histories, narratives and lived experiences of LGBTIQ people are never again relegated to obscurity," Keval Harie, the director of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) LGBTQIA+ archives, wrote in an open letter to Justice Edwin Cameron, another co-founder of the Pride march.
"History has not been kind to queer people; we've been ridiculed, shamed, feared and reviled. Archives allow us the opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge those within our history and contemporary world whose personal convictions committed them to seeing a different world. It is one in which diversity is celebrated and the sense of self-worth of each and every person is affirmed. This is indeed what Pride is about."
Born of love
Ditsie is doing the work of affirming all those who contributed while also echoing the words of activist Tim Hjersted: "Compassionate activism is an activism that is ready for the war to end." The people with whom she founded Pride gave her that first feeling of belonging outside of her home. That is the generosity of acting from a place of love.
"I don't know if we'll get it back, but I would love for [young queer people] to experience that. A feeling of being with your people, meeting in love, in friendship, in defiance." Ditsie's writing is a love letter because it is with love that Ditsie believes we can move away from the anger and defensiveness that comes with it. It's a love letter because Ditsie is seeking healing and looking into a queer future of hope, reconnection and remembrance.
Her letter continues the legacy of work done by "Simon Nkoli, Donne Rundle, Terry Myburg, Roy Shepherd, Edwin Cameron, Paul Mokgethi, Phybia Dlamini, Lesley Mtambo, Mark Gevisser, Andrew Lindsey, Gerry Davidson, Diane, Patience, Tshidi, Linda, Zaza, and all those who sacrificed themselves in all sorts of ways to make that first Pride march a possibility".
To build, and justly so, erasure must be stopped.