Thokozani FC – A week in Paris

Thokozani football club [TFC] is currently comprised of 21 black lesbian-women athletes ranging in ages from 18-41, a coach, and a team administrator. All live in the Umlazi Township, Kwa-Zulu Natal.  The team was named after Thokozani Qwabe, a lesbian soccer player murdered in 2007 because of her sexual orientation.  A crime which is becoming increasingly familiar to young black LGBTIQ people living in the townships of South Africa.  TFC was created in response to these violences by Zanele Muholi, photographer and activist working for the rights of women and LGBTIQ people in South Africa.

Recently the TFC were invited to Paris France by a French LGBTIQ initiative, Foot Love which is aimed at promoting the fight against violence and discrimination of lesbians.  The visit to Paris came at a moment of great hurt for the South African LGBTI community but especially for lesbians, gay men and transgender people living in Black townships.   In 2012 alone there have been 10 murders of LGT people and at least 7 in the month of June 2012.   It is with these terrible acts of violence that the women of TFC and their founder Zanele Muholi travelled to Paris France.

The weeks included playing soccer, participating in social justice workshops and attending cultural events including the Paris Pride.    The team was accompanied by Millicent Gaika both from Cape Town and Zanele.   Millicent is a survivor of a homophobic hate crime when she was tortured and raped for five hours in her home.   The team members had heard about Millicent through her participation in the award winning documentary Difficult Love directed by Zanele and were excited to meet and learn from her.  For Millicent the trip would be part of her own healing process through speaking for herself and interacting with other lesbians from across South Africa.  For all the young women, Paris was where they could begin to understand the racial, gender  and post-colonial dynamics of living and performing in European spaces.

This was the first time any of the team had travelled abroad and only three of the group had attended a Pride event. How to present themselves and use this European space creatively was a huge challenge.   They did not wish to be seen as victims but had to speak about the violence taking place at home.  Neither did they wish to become spectacles in what was a predominately white space. There was always a danger and it was with this in mind that the women visited the museum where the genitals of South African Saarji Baartman were bottled and her body humiliated before her return to South Africa, making an historical and colonial link between France and South Africa.  They also learned of Josephine Baker the 1920s Black American dancer who began her adulthood like so many Black women, cleaning the homes of rich whites.  After a few years with the Jones Family band, Baker traveled to France.   Here she performed as an ultra spectacle, the “Dance Sauvage”  dressed in grass skirts and coconut bras before crowds of cheering white Parisians.

Conscious of these factors the team saw themselves as one family irrespective of where they came from and the need to present themselves positively and with agency.  Daily meetings to reflect and discuss any personal or team issues were a crucial part of the process of creating their own space in Paris which they hoped would continue when they returned.  For the future some of the team members hope to return to Europe for the ‘Gay Games’ and build on their international experience.   At home Zanele’s dream is to create a league of lesbian football teams integrating Durban with  Cape Town, Johannesburg and Mpumalanga.

Historically, the black townships of South Africa are a product of our Apartheid past, which formally fell in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa. However, while political apartheid ended, South Africa is still greatly divided and plagued by racialized poverty, chronic under/underemployment, lack of affordable housing, education, and adequate health care.

Black women  are the most adversely affected demographically by all of the above and the everyday realities for the majority of South Africans is they live in a society that is racially stratified, patriarchal and misogynist,heterocentric and homophobic.

Black women and as lesbians in South Africa  are challenged daily by under/unemployment, chronic illness including HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, hate crimes and other forms of lesbophobic sexual violence.   The province of  Kwa-Zulu Natal has an HIV+ adult population of almost 40%. The HIV transmission and infection rate among black women between the ages of 34-39 is now the fastest growing in the country, followed closely by women aged 24-29.

It is not by accident that the rate of transmission is highest among a demographic that is also hardest hit by unemployment. While the national average unemployment rate for black African men is at 27%, the rate of unemployment among black women increases to 33% in the urban areas and to 58% for rural women.

As an all black lesbian-women soccer team, the Thokozani Football team believe that through sport and soccer, they can make a difference in the lives of other young and queer women struggling against homophobia and violence.  It is not that the Thokozani team just play football.  They play for peace, for each other, their families and communities so that they can all co-exist.   In this way TFC are working towards building a physically, socially, and emotionally healthy and democratic South African society.  They like all South Africans  deserve a life free of discrimination and violence due to homophobia and other forms of oppression.  They have the right as athletes to play and compete in a safe and supportive environment no matter what our gender, race, class, or sexual orientation.   The club is now affiliated to the Association of South African Football Association (SAFA women’s section) and plays  the ABSA League.