My name is Themba and I am a candidate for matric.
The trajectory of my plan for achieving a brighter future is askew. The anchor for this plan is a matric certificate but the supporting things like my ability to attend school fell apart when the lockdown happened.
I live in the Vaal in Gauteng Province with my mother and my brother. My mother is my biggest supporter. You can hear it in the firm and yet cajoling way she preaches tolerance in our community. Her reckless love helps me to bear the taunting. Only reckless love can command a single mother to embrace her gay son and risk being ostracised by a community with homophobic tendencies. I have learned to ignore the taunting. The refrain, ‘Can’t you act like a man, Temba?‘ doesn’t sting so much now. I wasn’t always in a stable space. Once I lost it and tried to kill myself. I only mention this so that you can acknowledge the gravity of the situation – that I am hurtling towards my emotional state shortly before I attempted suicide.
Not everyone in my community supports people like me and I miss my supportive friends at school. My register teacher is like a second mom to me, and a fantastic counsellor. My netball coach is one of the kindest people I know. When we have practice or matches she always feeds us, which is awesome. Due to the lockdown, we didn’t attend the holiday study camps and support classes organised to push the syllabus and prepare us for matrics exams. Due to the lockdown, I can’t see or talk to my register teacher and netball coach. Due to the lockdown, I am worried that I won’t do well in matrics. But the creeping depression is the most worrying. Someone with my history can’t afford to entertain depression.
Mental health during a pandemic
I heard that there’s online support for stressed people like me. Am not sure how this can work for me without the needed airtime or data. I don’t know how not to be angry about things like not being able to go to school, to reach my support system, and especially the social worker who helped me after attempting suicide. She’s based in Vereeniging, which is two taxis away from my home in Evaton. The social workers in the local clinic are giving priority to GBV and coronavirus cases and the alcohol and cigarette addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms.
I spoke to my mother about how the lockdown is affecting me. I would like some money to buy data or to go for counselling but I can’t stress her with this. She’s preoccupied with looking for money to buy food. I wish I could speak to a counsellor especially on the days I feel hopeless. I had such a day last week after an encounter with the boys in the neighbourhood. They hurled abuses at me when I refused to join the food riots and the looting of delivery vans and shops. They said I needed to do my part as a man to provide for my family. Organised criminality is condoned in my hood and there are serious consequences for people who go against the grain. My acts of defiance will cause sanctions by the community members, for instance, our neighbours will refuse to lend mealie meal and sugar to us. Yet our community’s practice of borrowing essentials from each other is most useful during a crisis.
Breaking the lockdown rules
My mother sacrificed her precious savings so that I can phone my friends to distract me from doing anything stupid out of anger. I immediately broke the lockdown and self-isolation rules to meet and hang out with my friends. I won’t stop breaking the lockdown rules. What’s the point of hiding from the predator outside only to be slowly devoured by others in your home? I know about the Letsema initiative for addressing gender-based violence in this community. I even know some survivors of GBV and I hope they are having better luck accessing support services.
My friend Pule and Fani prefer to hang out at my house in Evaton because they feel safer here. My community isn’t openly homophobic and I think my mother’s dialogues focused on GBV issues have helped to bring some shift. But it’s tough for gay people in Sharpville and Sebokeng where Pule and Fani live. Soldiers stopped Pule twice to ask why he was wearing women hot pants yet he’s a man. Pule believes the police targeted him because he is gay.
“They stop me even when am not wearing my shorts to mock me and tell me to act like a man. I can wear anything I want!”
I ask Pule if he confronted the police about the unfair treatment.
“Have you seen the videos of police brutality on social media? If they can do that to anyone imagine what they’ll do to me.” Pule points to the containers with slivers of left-over soap melting under the hot sun.
“It’s melted. Let’s make the soap.”
We carefully shape the bars of soap. They’ll be useful after our long walks amid the droves of people in the streets searching for food and not wearing masks. Pule can make the most beautiful shape of soap from scrap. He’s studying beauty therapy at a college in Johannesburg. Like me, he wishes to be at school for the freedom it’s given him. Now he’s freaking out about the online classes he’s missed because he can’t afford data to connect.
I look at Fani and at the melting soap dripping through his clenched fist. He’s unusually quiet and I ask him why.
“I hate being afraid and pretending to be nice all the time,” He places a small fish-shaped bar of soap alongside the two-toned one I made.
Something has changed in his community and Fani is afraid. The people he thought were his friends don’t treat him the same. Two people even blamed him and other gay people for causing the coronavirus.
“They said God is angry especially with us. It’s not fair that many people blame gay people for natural disasters and the issues in society. People keep throwing Sodom and Gomorrah at me, but where’s the tolerance and mercy?
“I am exhausted. Do you know any working shelters for the gay community?” Fani looks at us, waiting, expecting. But we shake our heads.
As we prepare to say our goodbyes there’s tension in the air. We are thinking about the dear friends we haven’t seen in a while and we hope that they have found support.
This interview was conducted by Nosipho Twala and written by Nelly Nyagah.