The suspicious deaths of three black lesbians in South Africa have international human rights activists and local LGBT groups calling for prosecutors to charge the perpetrators with hate crimes.
According to the South African blog FreeGender, three lesbians in their 20s have been murdered, allegedly due to their sexual orientation, in the last two months. The first, 21-year-old Nokuthula Radebe, was found dead in the Thokoza township south of Johannesburg in March. Few media outlets reported the death or linked it to her sexual orientation.
In the second instance, however, international human rights groups have denounced the murder of lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza as a clear bias attack. Nogwaza was killed in Kwa-Thema township, east of Johannesburg, on April 24.
According to the organization, Nogwaza, 24, went to a bar in a neighboring township with a female friend. Men at the bar propositioned her friend, which led to a verbal altercation between Nogwaza and the men. At 9 a.m. the following morning, Nogwaza’s body was found in an alley near the bar—she had been severely beaten with stones, stabbed with shards of broken glass and evidently raped.
“I am so disturbed by this horrific action. It is the responsibility of the South African government to protect all its citizens. Hate crimes against LGBT people in this country are on the rise and the government should come out openly against these actions,” said Victor Mukasa, project coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders Project at the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). “Protection of individuals who are vulnerable because of their sexual orientation and or gender identity is something provided for in the Constitution of South Africa, and should be put in practice.”
Human Rights Watch, an independent human rights organization based in New York, believes the attack was “motivated by her sexual orientation.” Nogwaza was a well-known member of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organizing Committee, which has produced LGBT pride demonstrations in the local communities since 2009.
“Nogwaza’s death is the latest in a long series of sadistic crimes against lesbians, gay men and transgender people in South Africa,” reported Dipika Nath, a researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “The vicious nature of the assault is a potent reminder that these attacks are premeditated, planned and often committed with impunity.”
While Nogwaza’s death was still fresh in the minds of her friends and family, Independent Online (IOL) reported the homicide of 23-year-old Nqobile Khumalo in KwaMashu township near the port city of Durban. Police found her body in a shallow grave on May 6, two days after she was first reported missing. In this case, too, police were reluctant to link the motive behind her murder to her sexual orientation. But a lesbian and bisexual women’s group, Lexit, claims she was killed because she was a lesbian.
“Many lesbians are being raped and killed yet nothing is being done,” Lexit chairwoman Thobeka Khoza, who staged a demonstration outside Durban’s City Hall, told IOL. “We will continue to protest until something is done about this…the government is not protecting us and our rights.”
Despite South Africa’s gay-friendly image and its legalization of same-sex civil rights in 2006, the nation has no hate-crime statutes protecting LGBT citizens against crimes motivated by prejudice. In recent years, so-called “corrective rape”—in which groups of men sexually assault lesbians, or women they perceive as lesbians, to “teach them a lesson” or “cure” them of homosexuality—has become an epidemic. At least five cases of physical and sexual assault against lesbians, in which the victims were targeted specifically due to their sexual orientation, are moving through the magistrate courts in South Africa. LGBT activists believe that many more physical and verbal attacks go unreported for fear of retribution.
“Police and other South African officials fail to acknowledge the members of the LGBT community are raped, beaten and killed simply because of how they look or identify, and they are attacked by men who walk freely, boasting of their exploits,” said Dipika Nath of Human Rights Watch. “If the police and other officials do not act swiftly, it will be only a matter of time before they have to account for their failure to the family and friends of the next lesbian who is beaten and killed.”
The recent crimes are eerily similar to the murder of Eudy Simelane, a well-known lesbian soccer player who was also raped and killed in Kwa-Thema in 2007. Activists blamed the culture of “corrective rape” in her case, though prosecutors claimed her sexual orientation had no bearing on the verdict. Two people were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
At press time, police had made no arrests in either Radebe’s or Nogzawa’s deaths. Authorities arrested a male suspect in Khumalo’s murder, but he had not been charged with a specific crime.