by Barry Thorsness -
SGN African Correspondent
As we got into week two in Johannesburg, we realized how trapped we felt by not having public transportation or a car. Even on our daily walks from where we lived, we were sometimes uncertain if we should be walking a particular neighborhood or not.
The Apartheid Museum
We spent a good portion of Saturday afternoon at the Apartheid Museum. It is a very large museum and covers the history of South Africa from the early 1900s with a special section devoted to the life and political struggles of Nelson Mandela. The museum is quite exceptional - by that I mean very honest and open about the portrayal of brutality towards the black Africans and other prisoners, from the first settlement in Cape Town, the finding of gold in Johannesburg, the colonial governments, the Boer War, and Apartheid. President de Klerk created the way for Nelson Mandela and the new constitution and the ANC government headed by Mandela. (Both de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Prize for their work in the transfer from "white" government to "black" government.) This museum is very well done, though very emotionally draining.
Saturday night at Babylon
Off we went on Saturday night to Centurian, which is a suburb of Pretoria (the capitol of S.A.) and these days almost completely connected to Johannesburg, and a 30-minute drive. Babylon is a Gay nightclub on Saturday and very popular, with a packed dance floor and great sound and lights - and, surprising to us, so very, very white. After a couple of drinks, and after not seeing one black Gay man in the crowd, I thought I would have a conversation with some of the patrons to learn how the crowds work in Johannesburg.
There was a table next to us with three great looking, probably 24-year-old "Afrikaner" men. After a little small talk, I asked why there were no black Gay men at Babylon, and mentioned that going out in Seattle looked far more "African." I was greeted by what I perceived as a coldness and some responses such as, "They don't like the music," "Pretoria is very white," and then, "We are very racist." We briefly chatted and I returned to our table wondering if what I had experienced was sarcasm or the reality of life in the Gay bars of Johannesburg.
All the staff of the bar was black and very busy, so I went off in search of the coat check girl, who was very friendly and most willing to chat with me about the bar clientele. She told me that black Gay men sometimes came into the bar, but usually didn't stay long.
Meet Bruce Walker
Bruce Walker is Babylon's Saturday-night promoter (along with Risqué, the bar he promotes in Sandton, an upscale suburb of Johannesburg). Bruce was a very friendly and talkative person. He first introduced me to Mr. Gay South Africa (I suggest you Google this guy for a real treat) and then we had a long chat about the commercialism of Gay Pride in Johannesburg and he answered some of my questions.
It seems that LGBT life in South Africa is very complex.
First you must understand that most of the city is not very racially mixed. Upscale areas, such as Centurian and Sandton, have a tendency to be very white. Other areas of the city, such as Yeoville and townships such as Soweto, are almost 100% black. Add to that that there is no real public transportation (except the taxi-mini vans, which are almost 100% black and most white people are afraid to ride them), and those without cars don't go too far, especially to go out at night.
Not cool to be Gay and black
OK, remember how hard it was for most of us to tell our parents and friends we were Gay or Lesbian? Well, as a black South African, as a rule, you don't come out. You make every effort to "look straight." Being an out black Gay or Lesbian in South Africa is almost sure cause to be dumped by your community, family, and friends. We are planning to visit a Gay black bar in Soweto on the weekend, so I will give you an update next week.
Meet Gavin Hayward
Gavin Hayward is the owner and publisher of Johannesburg's LGBT newspaper Exit. We spent over three hours chatting with Gavin about LGBT South Africa and what was happening in Joburg. Not only was Gavin most knowledgeable, he was warm, friendly, and a lot of fun. We chatted about the bars, being a Lesbian, marriage and Gay rights, HIV and treatment, and how the LGBT society was dealing with integration.
Even less cool - possibly life-threatening - to be Lesbian
Joburg is a city with about 8 million people, a large and exciting Gay Pride, and not one Lesbian bar. South Africa is a country of extremes, and to be an out Lesbian in Joburg - especially if you are black - could mean being raped and beaten, just to prove to the woman she really is straight. The threat to Lesbians is so real that a Lesbian bar would likely be firebombed. The Lesbian community has events called "First Fridays," and these happen once a month at different locations.
Riding the taxis with a great guide
Louis and I decided that if we were to see many of the areas of Joburg, we were going to have to learn to ride the "taxis" (minivans, usually crowded with people, almost 100% black, and without any signage so you don't know where they are going). Many of the white people we met told us we were crazy; they would never ride the taxis. Others told us that we really wouldn't have much problem, but we might get lost.
So we hired Elton to show us the taxis and guide us around Yeoville.
Elton is a great-looking and very fun 24-year-old from Zimbabwe. He has been living in S.A. for about five years, trying to make money to support himself while sending some money back to Zimbabwe so his family can survive in the political and economical turmoil of their country. Well, we felt great riding the taxis knowing we couldn't get lost, and the people riding them were very friendly. We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon walking around in a neighborhood that 30 years ago was predominately white and is now 100% black. Parts of Yeoville felt just like they were "third world," and then others were very similar to the slums or "favellas" in a city such as Rio de Janeiro.
We chatted with people on the streets and even walked into a city Health Clinic to learn about the health system and how people are treated. The head doctor of the health clinic invited us into her office, and we spent some time learning about health care in S.A.
If you are sick, cut your hand, are pregnant, have an STD or are being tested or treated for HIV/AIDS, it seems the government will treat you without cost. To receive antiretrovirals for the treatment of AIDS, you must first be tested and documented to have a CD4 count of 200 or less - not a very good situation for many with HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that approximately 13% of the population is HIV-positive, and in men and woman between 30 and 34 years old, the numbers range from 25-29% HIV-positive.
Wherever you go, almost without exception, everyone is so friendly. You must watch, though, never to become complacent, flash your camera or cell phone, and remember to watch for anyone who may want to separate you from your belongings. You must be aware that not only has the black population of South Africa had an extremely hard time with finding employment, but South Africa is now home to many who have left the unbelievably hard lives of Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the wars in Ethiopia, and other countries of Africa, and some of these people are desperate. The official rate of unemployment is 25.1%.
Never seen so many BMWs
South Africa is always an extreme, and often not what one has often believed. In the areas where Louis and I go for quick lunch or go shopping for groceries, the mode of transportation is a Mercedes, BMW, or often a Range Rover. Most often, the driver of the Mercedes or BMW is black. The houses are huge, with high walls topped with electrical fences. The streets are blocked off with gates and the entrances to many residential areas are through manned security entrances. These neighborhoods seem to be very well off.
We are off to explore more of the LGBT lifestyle and nightlife. This weekend we hope to experience a Gay bar in Soweto and find some other places where black Gay men go to dance and have fun. We are also going out to visit some activist LGBT organizations. It was the LGBT activist organizations who, before Nelson Mandela became president, worked with the S.A. government on the constitution so that S.A. is one of the few countries in the world where people, regardless of the sexual orientation, has the same rights.
Visit Barry's blog: http://bthorsness.wordpress.com/
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