Gender Non-Conforming Founding Executive Director of Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities Melusi Simelane joins Amandla for a quick chat.
Amandla: Thank you so much for chatting with us Melusi, especially on such short notice. For anyone unfamiliar with who you are, kindly introduce yourself - we want to do you justice.
Melusi: Of course! My name is Melusi Simelane, Founding Executive Director of Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities, and I am gender non-conforming ––human first, before any gender and sexual orientation so feel free to use any pronouns as you wish. I am a human rights activist who advocates for minoritized sexual and gender identities in Eswatini.
Amandla: Wonderful! Well, I have followed your work for quite a while and I admire what you have been able to achieve so far. I am curious to hear how it all started for you? When did you decide that this was something you wanted to do?
Melusi: I often say that I am a Human Rights activist first, and LGBTIQ rights advocate second. This is because I believe in the values of humanity, above all else. Historically, we as Africans have been a people that put humanity first, before anything else, and this is what drives the work that I do, and this has been the case for me for as long as I can remember. As far as my activism goes, I worked for over 3 years with a ‘Key Populations’ [MS1] organization, and successfully hosted the first Pride in eSwatini, 2018. After this, I went on to found Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM). ESGM has taken the LGBTIQ movement forward in multiple folds. This was long overdue because the LGBTI movement needed an organization that speaks directly to their issues. ESGM is membership-based, and this has made the job easier to mobilize and work on what the LGBTI need and dream of or are battling within their various spheres of existence. We have around 130 registered members But it wasn’t easy at all. In late 2019, the Government of Eswatini denied ESGM registration, but this has not stopped me from taking the conversation forward. Be it through webinars on the organization's Facebook page, or putting up a billboard in the capital city with the words ‘Constitutional Rights Belong to Everyone’, I have endeavored to move the conversation forward.
Later in 2019, I spearheaded an annual LGBTI Conference, with the first one held at Hawane Resort, in November 2019, and the second one to be held at Mantenga Lodge, in September 2020. These conferences are a space for not only ESGM members, but the entire LGBTI community in eSwatini to convene and discuss issues that matter to them. The first one was widely covered in the two major newspapers, and it shut down the news cycle for almost two weeks after it was held.
Amandla: Haha! We love to hear it! So tell us a bit more of the vision you have for ESGM. What have you been able to accomplish so far? And What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an organization?
Melusi: ESGM is the first organization to publicly advocate for LGBTIQ persons in eSwatini. This is important as it creates an essential space for Queer visibility. In fact, after becoming aware that ESGM aims to publicly advocate for the rights and dignity of LGBTIQ persons, the government denied ESGM the right to registration as I mentioned. The denial raises interesting legal questions around the importance of freedom of association for LGBTQ persons in eSwatini. ESGM will continue to work with the LGBTIQ community in eSwatini, to develop an advocacy strategy around the government’s stance and the importance of freedoms of association and expression regardless of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity expression.
Comparable to the ongoing work on access to human rights services like healthcare for Queer folk, ESGM will give voice to the fundamental gaps in legislation and policy which are some key contributors to the continued stigma and discrimination of Queer folks in eSwatini. Our advocacy strategy includes conversations about the importance of mental wellness services for LGBTIQ persons who continue to be marginalised and subsequently fall victim to many forms of violence.
Amandla: What is fulfilling about your work, and what are some challenges you have faced personally?
Melusi: Well, let's get into it. I am really passionate about what I do because it is truly what I believe in, but it has come at great costs. In my line of work, not only have I been a victim of malicious hate messages and threats on social media, but I have also been physically harassed severally... From being attacked at University by fellow students in 2017/2018, to being bad-mouthed to my landlord by neighbors in the past few months, to even being policed by plainclothed undercover officers I have seen it all.
After speaking about LGBTI rights abuse at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit’s Committee which is headed by senior members of commonwealth governments, with Eswatini’s Secretary to Cabinet being present, to the many meetings with senior police officials on the hosting of the first Pride celebration in 2018, I have ruffled feathers with the authorities. It certainly changed my life for the worse in the past 18-24 months. Though the visible interest of the international community has stalled any direct attacks, it has not stopped the cyberbullying and multiple hacking of my electronic devices.
After the hearing of the registration case in June 2019, which eventually got postponed indefinitely, I was tailed by plain-clothed police who at one point got into my workplace under the pretense of looking for an unrelated individual. Some of my colleagues and ESGM members who were at the hearing were followed on the day of the hearing up till they got on their busses home. This is the state in which my life unfolds in Eswatini, and though I am never losing sight of the bigger goal, it is without a doubt that my freedoms and rights are continually being infringed on, even if it is indirectly. I have consequently had to slow down many of my social familiarities after several attempts to assault me by unidentified individuals. This has not been made any easy by the hostile environment in my complex, where the neighbors continuously make accusations of impropriety to my landlord.
The lack of support from leading CSOs in the country has made it difficult for me, as I am not slowing down. Recently, the leader of the Coordinating Assembly of NGOs was quoted saying, “they do not support ‘fighting’ the government”, referring to the registration case. These are some of the sentiments we have to work against, and/or towards correcting, while at the same time working towards the bigger advocacy bid for LGBTI rights in Eswatini.
This, nonetheless, has not slowed me down, and I am no stranger to being mistreated and vilified. I continue to work towards building bridges and synergies with human rights bodies within civil society. I won’t stop.
Amandla: I mean we certainly can never give up, you are right. I learned this the hard way. How about you, how was your journey to self?
Melusi: Well, I grew up without my parents, and I think that made it possible for me to be true to who I am because of the fear that I am and was always on my own. I had to be true to myself, or nothing else made sense. It was not easy, and it is still not easy. Every day is a journey But I had to, and still have to come out every day of my life, because we are forever evolving.
Amandla: What does Queer Liberation mean to you?
Melusi: It should never be about Queerness, it should always be about the liberation of the human and everything else that defines the human. This is why I love what the Queer activists of South Africa did during the fall of apartheid. They said, “ to say when we talk about the liberation of the Black South African, we cannot leave some behind.”Yes more still needs to be done. Yes, we have so much to do as activists, but it starts with the realization that we will never achieve anything in silos. We must subscribe, live and become intersectional in our approach. Intersectionality will help us become free. In this way, to me, Queer liberation means finally being able to be, whatever our difference.
Amandla: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Melusi: I absolutely am losing faith in everything that I am doing. I always say this, and colleagues say i am too young to quit. But
look, I turn 30 in September, and I cannot be the ‘poster boy’ forever. I need to let the young generation take control. This is why with starting ESGM we made it membership-based so that there can be a transparent management and succession plan.
So I hope when ESGM gets registered, I can leave it to more capable hands. So in 5 years' time, I see myself working for an international NGO, maybe working for the Commonwealth or African Union. I just want to work towards creating a better world. That is what I see myself doing. Contributing towards a better world wherever the road takes me.
Amandla: How can people get involved in supporting your work?
Melusi: They can definitely donate. We are struggling to keep our lights on and since we are not registered, it is hard for many donors to grant us. There is so much we want to achieve, and so few resources. Not only financial but also human resources and expertise. Another way would be to sign our petition to decriminalize same-sex intimacy in eSwatini. All this and more can be found on our website at eswatiniminorities.org
Amandla: Any word advice for upcoming Queer Activists across the continent and the diaspora?
Melusi: Never give up. Your voice matters, your story matters, and your work will be the definition of our struggle. You may be vilified today, and may even feel tired, but your contribution and your tireless efforts do not go unnoticed.
Connect with Melusi @melusi simelansi on the queerafricannetwork.com