“My Name is Melusi Simelane”
Swaziland or the Kingdom of Eswatini as it is formally called is an absolute monarchy freed from British colonial rule in 1968. In Swaziland, to be homosexual and to be open with your identity as an LGBTI person is illegal and entails enormous risks of being subjected to hate, threat, and persecution. The LGBTI activist Melusi Simelane, head of communications at the organisation Rock of Hope, describes the country and the struggle to survive under this threat. He depicts how the world perpetually shrinks, which is the price of being oneself. Simelane also works with the prevention of HIV. Swaziland has the highest percentage of HIV cases in the world—it is feared that 27 per cent of the population are bearers of the virus.
My name is Melusi Simelane. I am Human Rights activist first, and an LGBTIQ rights advocate second. This because I believe in the values of humanity, above all else. Historically, we Africans have been people that puts humanity first, before anything else, and this is what motivates me to keep on doing the work that I do. I was born and raised in the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as the Kingdom of Swaziland. This is the last absolute monarchy in sub-Saharan Africa, and let’s say, it has its ups and downs. Perhaps more downs – if human rights are what we are using to measure.
After working for more than three years with a ‘Key Population’s organization, and successfully hosting the first Pride in Swaziland 2018, I went on to found The Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities, ESGM. This is an organization that was started out from a need to let the movement grow and create an environment that is conducive for the LGBTI community in the country. ESGM is the only organization in Swaziland that want to work for the main purpose of LGBTI-advocacy and its rights. This is probably the reason for why the country has denied the registration of the organization. ESGM has taken the LGBTIQ movement in Eswatini forward in multiple fields. This was long overdue – the LGBTI movement needed an organization that speaks directly to them and bring their issues up to agenda. ESGM is a membership-based organization, and this makes understanding the needs of LGBTI community in Eswatini easier. It’s also easier for us to mobilize, and battle with the struggles we face within our various spheres of existence. It also makes it possible for us to dream and together create an idea of what changes that we wish for.
The government of Eswatini denied ESGM registration in 2019. The reason for this denial is the criminalization of same-sex intimacy between consenting male adults, under the common Law offense of sodomy, a colonial era law. Another reason given is that sexual orientation is not listed under the list of protections against discrimination in our constitution. However, this has not stopped me from taking the conversation forward.
Might be through webinars, on the organization's Facebook page, without possibility to meet in public, or by putting up a billboard in the capital city with the words ‘Constitutional Rights belong to everyone’, I have endeavoured to make the conversation move forward.
I have also initiated and led an annual LGBTI Conference in Swaziland. The first one was held at Hawane Resort in November 2019, and the second one is to be held at Mantenga Lodge, in September 2020. These conferences are meant to be spaces not only for ESGM members, but for the entire community to openly convene and discuss issues that matter to them.
In a research study made in 2019, the LGBTI community in Swaziland indicated that 30% of them had been denied healthcare services, because of their sexual and/or gender identities. The same study also says that over 40% of this community carries suicide thoughts, which is a big issue amongst those who are self-identifying as LGBTI. Important to mention is also the number of people in Swaziland living with HIV, that is 27% (2018). Working with HIV-prevention and education within the community is also an important part of my work. All the problems mentioned are tightly tied to the lack of information within the LGBTI community, and further to the criminalisation of same-sex intimacy amongst consenting male adults. The refusing to register ESGM as an organization is a constant reminder that the community has no place within the broader Swaziland society, and that the government won’t do anything to protect us from the scattered prejudices in society. In fact they will ensure that we are being continuously discriminated on the basis of our sexual identity. Our constitution does not protect us.
The first conference we arranged got a lot of media-attention. It was widely covered in our two major newspapers and completely shut down the news cycle for almost two weeks after it was held. The issues from the conference that were brought up for discussion is of great importance to us, and big parts of society were before not aware of how much interest the community have in the broader issues of society. This was the reason for us almost taking over the entire week’s news cycle, covering a span of issues discussed in the conference.
Within my field, and because of the visibility that my work has brought towards myself as a person, I have not only been a victim of malicious hate messages and threats on social media, I’ve also been harassed several times in person. From being attacked at the University by fellow students in 2017/2018, to being bad-mouthed by my landlord and by neighbours in the past months, to the fact that I’ve recently noticed that I’m often being stalked, mostly by police wearing civil uniforms.
During the past two years my life has changed for the worst. From speaking about the abuse of LGBTI rights at the 2018 Commonwealth heads of government summit’s committee, held by senior members of Commonwealth governments, with the Eswatini’s Secretary to Cabinet being present, to the many meetings with senior police officials on the hosting of the first Pride celebration in 2018, I have ruffled on with the authorities. Even if the visible interest of the international community has stalled direct attacks, it has not stopped the cyber bullying and multiple hacking of my electronic devices.
After the hearing of the registration case in June, which eventually got postponed indefinitely, I was tailed by police wearing civil uniforms who at one point came into my workplace under the pretence of looking for an unrelated individual. Some of my colleagues and ESGM members at the hearing also got stalked from the hearing – until they got on their buses home.
This is how my life unfolds in Eswatini, and even though I am never losing sight of the bigger goal, it is without a doubt that my freedom and rights are continually being infringed on, even if not directly. I have consequently needed to slow down many of my social familiarities after several attempts to assault me by unidentified individuals. This has not been made any easy by the hostile environment where the neighbours continuously make accusations of impropriety to my landlord.
Recently, the leader of the Coordinating Assembly of NGOs was quoted saying, “they do not support ‘fighting’ the government”, referring to the registration case. Those are some of the sentiments that we have to work against, and/or towards correcting, while at the same time working towards the bigger advocacy bid for LGBTI rights in Eswatini. The lack of support from leading CSOs in the country has made it difficult for me – but I am not slowing down.
I am not a stranger to be mistreated and vilified. I continue to work towards building bridges and synergies with human rights and bodies within the civil society. And of course, conscientizing the broader community to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and expression.