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Remembering Eudy Simelane

30 august 2009 | south africa, womens football

KwaThema, South Africa: At dusk in early winter, smoke from coal fires
shrouds this bustling black township in a persistent haze resembling vol-
canic ash.
Among slag heaps of the heavily mined East Rand, temperatures
are certain to dip below freezing on a clear night toward the end of June.
The corrugated-tin dwellings of KwaThema, established in 1951 to house
blacks relocated from white areas southeast of Johannesburg, lack heat and
electricity. So outdoor fires already have started.
The parents of the late Eudy Simelane wear hats, scarves and coats
both indoors and out. Her father, Khotso, eats his evening meal beside the
kitchen stove, the only heat source in the trim double-pile house. Knotted
around his neck is an Arsenal scarf. It is real, he says, looking down and
fingering the tasseled ends. Several years earlier his daughter had brought
the scarf from an overseas trip with Banyana Banyana, the senior womens
national football team, for whom she was a midfielder.
The scarf is not a local product but originated in north London, an
impossibly distant land from which Premiership matches would be beamed
to Khotso and Mally Simelanes home in KwaThemas Tornado section.
Khotso watched games along with Eudy and Eudys brother, Bafana, on the
small television in his lounge.

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Eudy Simelane died on April 28, 2008, less than two hundred yards
from the four-room house, behind which she lived in her own bungalow.
On the Monday following Freedom Day, commemorating independent
elections of 1994, police retrieved Simelanes body from a culvert. Accord-
ing to a medical examiners report, she had been stabbed eight times in the
neck, abdomen and thighs. She was thirty-one.
Simelanes murder numbers among a series of attempted sexual as-
saults and corrective rapes in which black South African men have tar-
geted lesbians based on the womens sexual preference. So says a coalition
pushing government to live up to a progressive constitution that bars dis-
crimination on grounds that include sexual orientation, conscience, belief
and culture. With human rights, at least theoretically, at the center of the
fifteen-year-old democracy, South Africa since 2005 has recognized same-
sex marriages.
Since February hundreds have demonstrated outside Delmas circuit
court, Mpumalanga province, famed for treason trials of anti-apartheid
activists in the 1980s. One of the accused, Thato Mphiti, on February 13
received a thirty-two-year sentence after pleading guilty to murder and to
assault and robbery.
The fate of three alleged accomplices, Themba Mvubu, Khumbulani
Magagula, and Johannes Mahlangu, became more uncertain in late July
when Mphiti recanted previous testimony and said that he had acted alone.
Closing arguments have been postponed until September 21.

Eudy Simelane was born two months premature at Chris Hani Baragwa-
nath Hospital in Soweto on March 11, 1977. The hospital, with more than
three thousand beds, covering 173 acres, is the largest in the world. Com-
plications after birth kept Eudy at hospital for several months. According
to women of the familyincluding Eudys mother as well as her maternal
grandmother, Elizabeth Skosana, and aunt, Busi SkosanaEudys early

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Remembering Eudy Simelane

fragility resulted in special treatment. She resisted domestic routine and


household chores.
She started to kick the ball when she was crawling, her mother told
the Sowetan. As a toddler, she cried when the ball went flat. It would be
years before Eudy had a regulation-size football, but, until then, starting
around age five, she played street soccer with boys along a warren of alleys
and side roads near her grandmothers home.
Designers infused with idealism intended KwaThema to replicate
garden cities in Europe and the United States with play areas and al-
lotments on which families could grow produce. In reality, greenbelts
sketched on planning documents became buffer zones to segregate
KwaThema from Brakpan and Springs, coal- and gold-mining towns es-
tablished in the late nineteenth century, and to limit blacks freedom of
movement and access to opportunity. According to a history of Johan-
nesburg-area housing, open spacesonly now being appropriated, here
and there, as soccer fields as part of 2010 World Cup legacy fundingre-
mained undeveloped veld, dumping grounds for car wrecks and havens
for vagrants and criminals.
These brown stretches of Gauteng steppe, over which dust and haze
hung low, formed the frontier of Eudys known world as a schoolgirl. Grow-
ing up, she stuck to routine, soccer filling gaps between school, study and
sleep. Grandmother Elizabeth remembers that Eudy would present minia-
ture match reports on return from football training. Eudy liked television
and Rasta music, especially Bob Marley and Lucky Dube, a Mpumalanga
musician himself murdered in 2007 in a Johannesburg suburb. Teachers at
Qedusizi primary and Phulong secondary schools encouraged her athlet-
icism. Photos from secondary school show Eudy with placid expression,
hair trimmed, long-sleeve white shirt and vest covering a broad torso.
She grew to be as tall as her mother, close to 1.75 meters, and
stout, almost the prototypical South African woman player, according to
national-team manager Fran Hilton-Smith. Eudys world expanded on her
discovery by Joseph Skesh Mkhonza, a former player for Kaizer Chiefs

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with a history of developing women footballers, including Hilton-Smith,


in Gauteng. For the national side Eudy was a central midfielder, positioned
in front of the defense, very strong, very good with the head, stable, lovely
girl, quiet, pleasant, Hilton-Smith recalls.
Eudys attachment to football did not make full impact on the family
until she received her first call-up to Banyana Banyana at twenty-one and
began traveling across the country, throughout Africa and to tournaments
and friendly matches in Europe. Womens football in South Africa suffered
the same international isolation as the mens game with the additional
handicap of gender discrimination, writes Martha Saavedra in a 2004 sur-
vey. Amateur womens sides played curtain-raisers as early as the 1960s,
but a national program for women did not start until 1993.
Eudys parents never saw her play for the national team. Travel times
and logistics, even to Johannesburg, are prohibitive given a lack of efficient
public transit. But brother Bafana, also a footballer, accompanied her to
training sessions and games. Father Khotso watched her play in school and
township matches.
Until her death, even after being dropped from the national-team
player pool as the result of a coaching change, Eudy played for Tsakane
Ladies in a neighboring township. Her devotion to football did not lessen
with age. She became one of the first women in South Africa to earn refer-
eeing certification. Following from her practice of organizing impromptu
girls and boys teams in her youth, Eudy helped Mkhonza with adminis-
tration of womens soccer in Gauteng.
She was the familys breadwinner, its center. In KwaThema she pro-
vided hiv/aids counseling and also worked with the handicapped. In
May 2008, Eudy planned to start a job with a pharmaceutical company in
Pretoria.

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In the end, Simelane lost her life for a mobile phone and a pair of takkies,
black-and-white athletic shoes that one of the alleged attackers, Mvubu,
according to his younger brother, wore the morning after the crime. Mvu-
bus trousers contained traces of Simelanes blood near the zipper. Simelane
fought her assailants, testified the doctor who conducted the postmortem,
and likely had been restrained while receiving the fatal stab wounds. The
convicted killer, Mphiti, before changing his story in July also said that
Simelane had recognized her murderers. In Mphitis words, she looked at
Mvubu and said, Themba you know me, and why do you do this?
She grew up here, said Mally Simelane in June. Everybody here in
this location knows her. It was to us a shock and a surprise, Why did they
do this to her? Because if these boys have killed her, they knew her.... We
never even think that she was threatened outside. Because she goes wher-
ever she likes. She comes back at home.
Speaking to Dipika Nath of Human Rights Watch in February, Mally
said Eudys death had transformed her into a resource for KwaThemas les-
bian community. These lesbian daughters, rejected by their families of ori-
gin, now call her mum.
To those pushing to have Simelanes case and others recognized as
hate crimes, Eudys alleged killers were young men threatened by her gay
lifestyle. She had a lesbian partner and a reputation for physical strength.
Although she had only come out to her mother the year before her death,
Eudy had been participating in gay-pride marches in Johannesburg. Her
family had not seen pictures from these marches until the memorial ser-
vice at KwaThema Central Methodist Church.
Close to two thousand attended Simelanes funeral.1 Similar numbers

1. A bridge was constructed in Simelanes honor near the place of her death. Gay-
rights activists cleaned the field before the first anniversary of her murder and erected a
wooden cross. A fellow struggler was killed there, writes Mtetwa of the Lesbian and Gay
Equality Project, for transgressing pre-assigned societal gender roles and for living openly
as a non-heterosexual.

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filled the service for one of Simelanes teammates with Tsakane Ladies, who
died June 22 as the result of internal bleeding from another KwaThema
stabbing attack. The funeral program calls Girlie Sgelane Nkosi, thir-
ty-seven, arguably the most visible lesbian of Kwa-Thema with a history
of speaking out against hate crimes. Before she died, Nkosi asked that
those attending the memorial sing songs from church and from the strug-
gle against apartheid. They sang Yonk indawo umzabalazo uyasivumela
(Everywhere Struggle Is Welcome) and the isiZulu hymn Igazi Lemihlat-
shelo (It Is the Blood of Sacrifices).2
Cases of black-on-black violence crystallize arguments from crit-
ics who see South Africa, especially disillusioned township youth, losing
touch with ideals that energized apartheid-era resistance. Townships such
as KwaThema became organizational hubs during the freedom struggle,
particularly in the wake of Soweto student protests in 1976. When Eudy
was eight, in the winter of 1985, state security police killed seven resi-
dents participating in an anti-apartheid demonstration. Two weeks earlier,
eight resistance fighters in KwaThema and nearby Duduza township died
when their own hand grenades exploded. They were between nineteen
and twenty-three, roughly the same age, one generation later, as the men
charged in Simelanes killing.
Also during apartheid, writes Phumzile Mtetwa of the Lesbian and
Gay Equality Project, KwaThema helped bring the regions gay subculture
to light. KwaThema resident MaThoko, in particular, emerged as a key
figure in gay and lesbian activism in the Witwatersrand. Drag queens
walked KwaThemas streets in the early 1980s. Ordinary members of the
Kwa-Thema community would have been perceived as out of touch if they
dared speak against gays and lesbians, Mtetwa says.
Africas first gay-pride march occurred in Johannesburg in 1990,
where Simon Nkoli, among twenty-two who faced treason charges in

2. An athlete and activist for lesbian causes, Nkosi lived a proud life, reads the
tribute inside the funeral program, transgressing all social gender norms and openly con-
fronting the ills posed by economic exclusion.

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Delmas beginning in 1985, declared that he needed to feel free as a gay


man in order to be free as a black man. Nkoli died of aids in 1998. Again
in Delmas, activists now see in the Simelane case a chance to bring pre-
meditated violence against gay women into public view. At pre-trial hear-
ings at Springs Magistrate Court in 2008, demonstrators wore black shirts
with Simelanes name along with names of other gay women murdered
in Khayelitshaoutside Cape TownLadysmith (KwaZulu-Natal) and
Soweto. Not Just Faces and Vaginas, read one of the stark block-letter
placards.
Efforts to prosecute earlier cases have encountered procedural delays,
lack of investigative zeal and other barriers to holding South Africas legal
system to the high constitutional standard. At the February trial of Mphiti,
the judge declared Simelanes sexual orientation of no significance. This
past week, Circuit Court Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng asked whether les-
bian was an appropriate word to use in court.3
Whatever the ultimate judgment, Mtetwa writes, this case will
leave many questions unanswered. The public record likely will remain
opaque on the motives of Simelanes murderers. More broadly, the late Ste-
ven Bikos prediction that Africa would bring the world a new standard of
human relations seems well beyond reach.
Work to narrow the gap between the dream of equality for gay
women and reality progresses incrementally, with victories and defeats. In
the wake of the Simelane and Nkosi murders, organizers announced the
first gay-pride march in Ekhuruleni, the municipality containing KwaTh-
ema, on September 19.
But skeptics speak of institutionalized violence seeking outlet in

3. Peter Alegi adds the following: Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng was one of the found-
ing members of Kaizer Chiefs, South Africas most popular club. After he left Orlando
Pirates with Kaizer Motaung and Zero Johnson in 1970, the bespectacled Ratha received
death threats, presumably from supporters of Pirates. Its also worth mentioning that Eudy
Simelane was prominently remembered in the District Six Museums 20102011 exhibition
Offside: Kick Ignorance Out, Football Unites and Racism Divides. For those interested in
reading my review of this exhibit, read it in The Public Historian 33, no.3 (summer 2011):
15457.

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times of economic disparities. One bleak assessment observes that the


worst phase in South Africas xenophobic rioting, killing sixty-two, began
two weeks after Simelanes murder.
When will South Africa achieve its after-tears time?

Update
The conclusion of Simelanes trial September 22 in Delmas attracted world-
wide attention. The BBC, Guardian, and New York Times all reported on
Mokgoathlengs judgment:

Eudy Simelane suffered a brutal, undignified death.


She was stripped naked, stabbed, assaulted, raped.
What more indignity can a person endure?

Themba Mvubu, twenty-four, received a life sentence. Khumbulani


Magagula, twenty-two, and Johannes Mahlangu, eighteen, were acquitted,
although Mokgoathleng warned of Gods judgment for their presence that
night. The judge concluded that Simelane was known to her killers and was
murdered in order to obliterate the evidence. It is a sad, sad state of affairs
that a person can be killed for such a flimsy reason.
The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, which has helped coordinate
demonstrations on Simelanes behalf, expressed disappointment at the two
acquittals. But the projects Phumzile Mtetwa extrapolated from the verdict
that Simelanes sexuality had been a factor in her death, even though the
court would not make an explicit connection:

How did people know her in the township? She was


a soccer player who was butch and was known.
People are killed because of who they are.

Eudys mother, Mally, told Agence France-Presse:

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Eudy liked to be a lesbian since she was small. I


accepted her. I want to tell the other mothers that
these are my children. They are not creatures, they
are human beings. They are our children of South
Africa today.

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