A Queer Nation? Public Space, Citizenship & Alternative Sexuality in South Africa

Participants: Ho Yin Fong, Bryce Lease, Danai Mupotsa, Siona O’Connell

This project will focus on the notion that sexuality, which is simultaneously performative and conditioned by public displays of discipline, plays a key role in nation building. Non‐normative sexuality and the recent, still nascent, development of queer theory in the global south were both key themes developed by the BIARI Global Humanities working group in 2011. While our discussions centered largely around alternative sexuality in Jamaica, Poland, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, South Africa functioned as part of a larger consideration of representation and sexual identity in reference to the University of Cape Town’s adaptation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which was performed at Brown University in June 2011. UCT’s adaptation of Mozart, which set the eighteenth century opera on a vineyard on the Eastern Cape, opened up debates around the suitability of interrogating indigenous cultures through Western art forms. This also highlighted one of the key problems for the conception of a ‘global humanities’; namely, the imposition of Western critical theory on the global south, wherein such fields as queer theory implicitly colonize or lay claim to non‐Western cultures, nations and communities. Members of the working group were asked to consider alternative archives to those that dominate Western scholarship. This project will look at images taken during apartheid South Africa through the specific lens of the ‘moffie’ (Cape Town slang for an effeminate gay man). It will specifically look at street photography taken by Movie Snaps street photographers as well the Spring Queen beauty competition, which has a history over thirty‐five years in Cape Town textile factories. This will take place at the Centre for Curating the Archive at University of Cape Town, directed by Siona O’Connell.

A number of scholars have recently considered significant connections between expressions of ethnicity and sexuality (Nagel 2000), and sexuality and citizenship (Munro 2009, Tucker 2011) in African contexts. South Africa was the first country in the world to include an antidiscrimination clause in its constitution that banned discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In this way, an African nation has radically influenced legislation around homosexuality in countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. There have also been repercussions on the African continent. Obversely, countries such as Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria have reacted to South Africa’s culture of tolerance by implementing draconian laws directed against homosexuals, including the death penalty. Indeed, it has been claimed that gay rights was at the heart of the narratives around public culture and nationhood in transitional period of post‐apartheid South Africa. ‘Rainbow nation’ already implies an intersection between multiracialism and gay rights. The arrival of liberated gays and lesbians in the public sphere embodied a radically new social order that symbolically mediated tensions between class and race. ‘Public space’ is explored in relationship to the political economy of non-normative sexualities in the South African context in two key modes. Firstly, by considering the outward performance of sexuality in the public sphere and its explicit shaping of nationhood in the debates around the new constitution, and, secondly, by making public the hidden archives that characterize and give representation to such alternative identities.
In an effort to chart the representation of non‐normative sexual identities in South Africa we have chosen an online exhibition in an effort to have greater impact on the general public who do not have contact with or access to the academic community.