Four years ago today, 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza was raped and murdered in KwaThema in Ekurhuleni, South Africa. The mother of two was on her way home after a night out with friends. Despite friends and family believing that her murder was a hate crime and that Noxolo was targeted because she was a lesbian, her killers have still not been caught. Four years on, TRACY DOIG explores what has changed for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in South Africa – and what hasn’t.
Since Noxolo’s brutal murder four years ago, attacks on people because of their gender presentation or perceived sexual orientation are still too tragically common, especially in townships and rural areas across South Africa. At least 18 people have been murdered since Noxolo’s death. It is not known how many more have been attacked, raped, abused or harassed.
The area in which Noxolo lived and died, Ekurhuleni, has seen particularly high levels of hate crimes with seven lesbian women killed in the last decade. These incidents of sexual assault and murder of lesbian women have also occurred in the wider context of persistent, high levels of violence against women in general.
Homophobia and transphobia remain prevalent throughout South African society, an attitude that is, unsurprisingly, echoed within the police and by healthcare workers. It is so common that many LGBTI people don’t even recognise taunts and insults as a form of violence against them.
Hate crimes are identity crimes: targeting people for who they are. As such they have a particularly degrading effect on victims, their loved ones and their community. The failure to fully investigate and prosecute these terrible acts of violence increases their impact on an entire community – something that LGBTI people in Ekurhuleni, and other townships across South Africa, know only too well.
The lack of progress in the investigation of Noxolo’s murder also speaks to broader challenges within South Africa’s criminal justice system. But although there has been no progress in Noxolo’s case, wider developments in the country show that the South African authorities are moving in the right direction, taking steps to prevent and combating discrimination including targeted violence against LGBTI individuals.
In May 2011, in response to a change.org petition about targeted rape of lesbian women, the department of justice and constitutional development set up a national task team – including government representatives, the police and civil society – to look into gender-based violence affecting LGBTI people. Although it has not reached all provinces, police and regional and district magistrates have also been trained on LGBTI concerns and vulnerabilities since 2012.
In February 2012, in the sentencing of the killers of Zoliswa Nkonyane, a young lesbian woman murdered in Cape Town, the magistrate acknowledged that her murder had been motivated by hatred and homophobia and gave the maximum sentence in an attempt to signal that violence based on sexual orientation would not be tolerated. This conviction and sentencing took six years to secure, however, and came after the case had been postponed 40 times. Strong condemnation by the presiding magistrate was repeated in 2014 in the murder trial of the killer of Duduzile Zozo, a lesbian woman who was murdered in 2013 in Ekurhuleni.
In 2013, a sub-group of the national task team was created: the rapid response team. Part of its remit is to follow-up on and oversee the resolution of 43 uncompleted cases of targeted violence against LGBTI people. Noxolo’s case is on the list. By mid-2014, 19 of these cases had been finalised – but not Noxolo’s.
Several senior government officials have also made strong statements condemning hate crimes against LGBTI people and the South African government has pledged to introduce hate crimes legislation, something Amnesty International has been advocating for as part of a broad-based coalition, the Hate Crimes Working Group. Despite having committed to introducing this legislation at South Africa’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and in several public forums since then, it has still not been introduced.
Four years later, the pain of the loss of a beloved granddaughter, mother and best friend still runs deep. Noxolo’s grandmother, who now looks after her children, understands that something positive is happening at government level, but it does not answer the question why the granddaughter that she loved and who was the main breadwinner of the family has been taken from her. Nor does she feel that she can return to her rural home to retire until she can face the rest of the family to explain why four years later, Noxolo’s killers are still free.
On the anniversary of Noxolo’s death Amnesty International will be hosting a screening in KwaThema of an award-winning documentary, African Pride, that highlights the way in which South Africans are meeting homophobic violence and hate crimes with visibility and activism and which features the campaign for justice for Noxolo. Amnesty International also continues to engage with the South African authorities to ensure that Noxolo’s case is not forgotten.