The ugly truth about the TRC: Are black women of the LGBTI community in South Africa paying the price?

Muholi 1 Muholi 2 Muholi 3

‘Faces and Phases’ by Zanele Muholi

Today the world is mourning one of the greatest and most inspiring leaders of history on their Facebook status and Twitter accounts. And if you are befriended with fellow feminists on social networks, you probably read the following quote on your newsfeed:

« Freedom cannot be achieved, unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. » Nelson Mandela [1]

And indeed, perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Nelson Mandela is how he fought for women’s cause. Creating a constitution which gave South African women one of the most comprehensive set of rights such as: the right to ‘bodily and psychological integrity’, the right to ‘make decisions concerning reproduction’ and to ‘security and control over their body’.[2&3]  Protecting women from discrimination, rape and domestic violence. Signing and ratifying the CEDAW treaty. And the list could most certainly go on.

Yet gender-based violence in post-conflict South Africa remains critically prominent, with the highest known figures for a country not at war.[4] Puzzling, huh?

The violence occurring today in South Africa is particularly targeted at vulnerable minorities, such as black women in the LGBTI community.[5] Vulnerable in the sense that their rights are yet to be fully recognized by the constitution. Hate crimes and ‘corrective rapes’ are systematically happening, despite the promise in the constitution of ‘equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation’ that Mandela put forward during his mandate.

As Donna Pankhurst suggests, it is challenging to consider the nature and existence of post-conflict violence backlashes. There is no obvious pattern. These backlashes are characterized by their speed and dramatic force, and usually happen in a context when everyone expects life to be improving.[6] As a matter of fact, post-apartheid South Africa definitely qualifies.

Corrective rape survivors interviewed by the NGO ‘ActionAid’ said that verbal abuse before and during the rape focused on being ‘taught a lesson’ and being ‘shown how to be real women and what a real man tasted like’. Women who choose not to identify as heterosexual are indeed being targeted for daring to step outside the societal boundaries. In a dissertation entitled ‘Deferred and dismembered? Sexual Violence against women in ‘post-conflict’ South Africa’ Wendy Isaack suggests that if women continue to be marginalized and sexually violated simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity it is because ‘the political compromises made in the South African transition failed to address violence against women and have left women vulnerable and victimized.’[7]

‘The TRC failed us as women’, claimed together a group of women taking part in an ‘Art and Memory’ workshop organized by the South African History Archive. The workshops, they declared, enables members to recall and commemorate experiences of gender-based violence that had been ignored or suppressed by the TRC.[8]

In some sense, and despite Mandela’s efforts, the TRC lacked a truly inclusive gender perspective. The gender neutral nature of the mandate meant that there was no specific category for gender violence against women. It was subsumed under the heading ‘serious ill-treatment’. No questions were asked about rape and gender-based violence when women were interviewed. If they spoke out, statement-takers usually did not record it. Furthermore, rape and gender-based violence did not fall within the criteria of a political act as defined by the enabling act. A perpetrator who had committed rape as a political act would therefore not qualify for amnesty of these grounds. Consequently, no amnesty applicants would admit in their statements that they had raped.[9]

As Wendy Isaack points out, such omissions contribute to a transitional mechanism that reproduces problematic stereotypes, entrenching inequalities and hegemonies.[Ibid.7] Failing to establish firm grounds for a society free of gender-based violence. According to Helen Moffett, contemporary sexual violence in South Africa is ‘fuelled by justificatory narratives rooted in the Apartheid practices that legitimated violence by the dominant group against the disempowered’.[Ibid.4] Practices that the TRC arguably failed to condemn and delegitimize. Practices that continue to plague the country today.

Zanele Muholi is a visual activist. ‘We live in fear’, says Zanele on behalf of black women of the LGBTI community in South Africa. She documents through her art a violence that often goes unreported. She gives a voice and a face to a community particularly prone to gender-based violence. A necessity because of the vulnerable and underrepresented nature of her community. But also because of the culture of silence that persists in South Africa when it comes to gender-based violence.

Perhaps it is in women like Zanele that Mandela’s legacy can be felt most strongly. She indisputably embodies the strength, resilience and humanity inherited from Madiba’s inspiring struggle.



[1] Nelson Mandela in his first State of the Nation Address, Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 24 May 1994

[2] Robertso, Karen. ‘How Nelson Mandela helped free the women of South Africa’ for The Telegraph (Online) Available at:  [Last accessed 8th December 2013]

[3] More on Women’s Rights in the Constitutional Court of South Africa (Online) Available at: [Last accessed 8th December 2013]

[4] Moffett, Helen. ‘These Women, They Force Us to Rape Them’: Rape as Narrative of Social Control in Post-Apartheid South Africa’ Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, Women and the Politics of Gender in Southern Africa (Mar., 2006), pp. 129-144

[5] LGBTI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transexual and Intersexed

[6] Pankhurst, Donna. ‘Post-War Backlash Violence against Women: What Can ‘Masculinty’ explain?’ Gendered Peace: Women’s Struggles for Post-War Jutice and Reconciliation. (2008): 293-320 (New York: Routledge)

[7] Isaack, Wendy. ‘Deferred and dismembered? Sexual Violence against women in ‘post-conflict’ South Africa’. Written for the University of Ulster (2006)

[8] Seidman, Judy and Bonasa, NomaRussia. ‘Tsogang Basadi: Finding women’s voice from South Africa’s political conflict’. Workshop Report.

[9] Khulumani website. ‘How the TRC failed women in South Africa: A failure that has proved fertile ground for the gender violence women in South Africa face today’ (Online) Available at: [Last accessed 8th December 2013]


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
This entry was posted in Second blogs and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s