Zethu Matebeni | Queer Bodies in Trouble?

By Zethu Matebeni


Violence towards queer bodies

Zanele Muholi’s short video project for Puma’s Films4peace 2013, https://vimeo.com/73943643, was the starting point for this essay. I was intrigued by the women’s cry in the video as well as the final scene of a woman’s body lying almost naked and lifeless. Muholi’s focus is on a life mysteriously ended by murderers who are never found. Yet, the details of the actual deaths, offer a set of clues that could end the torture on queer bodies. In making sense of both the absences and continuties in this short video, I narrate the method which renders a queer body dead.

The ending here is purposefully abrupt, to signal both the ending of a life short-lived as well as the failure to comprehend the kinds of brutality and disfiguring that has become ordinary.




What does it mean to kill a queer body?[1]

Since February 2006 till September 2014, there have been at least 42 known brutal murders of mostly black lesbian, gay and transgender people in South Africa. These brutal murders added to the popularized notion of corrective and curative rapes towards black lesbians. Our understanding of rape became deeply challenged by the targeting of black lesbian bodies specifically. As all women in South Africa, black lesbians are similarly vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, they occupy a different space in society, as challenging, often openly rejecting both sexual, gender and other cultural norms. While sexual violence towards women generally is aimed at abusing power over female bodies, we also understand that the added vulnerability of rejecting black heteronormativity carried a heavy, and often deadly, penalty on black female bodies.


In February 2006 Zoliswa Nkonyana (19yrs) was stoned, kicked and clubbed to death by her peers on the streets of Khayelitsha metres from her home because she was a butch lesbian. Six years after her death, Zoliswa’s murderers were sentenced to 14 (18 with 4 years suspended) years in prison for denying her the right to live according to her sexual preference.


The following year the naked, brutalized and tortured bodies of Salome Masooa (23yrs), Sizakele Sigasa (34yrs), and Thokozane Qwabe (23yrs) were found by passersby in open fields (the story in the video). Like the accused for the murder of Madoe Mafubedu (16yrs) no one has been arrested or found guilty for their murders. They were all shot or stabbed numerous times. At close range, Sizakele had three gun shots to her head. The other three were distributed throughout her naked body. Salome died after one (close-range) gun shot to her head.


Violence does not only take place on physical bodies – often the system perpetuates it, even when death has already occured. In 2008 Khanyiswa Hani (25yrs) and Sibongile Mphelo (21yrs) were dismembered and murdered by people who have never been found. Our communities, streets, parks and homes are filled with crime scenes. Perpetrators visibly walk around and yet there is no sufficient evidence for the dead. Some are even assisted to escape the criminal justice system as we saw with the case of Zoliswa Nkonyane on September 15th, 2010.

Eudy Simelane (32yrs) was murdered on her way home by a group of men who knew her as an open lesbian in KwaThema. Her murderer said he panicked when she called out his name while robbing her and attempting to rape her. So they killed her, multiple times, making sure she was dead, dead. In his judgement, Judge Mavundla added another layer to Eudy’s death, by denying that her sexual orientation had any matter in her first death (Matebeni, 2014).


Year after year, young black lesbians and other gender non-conforming people die at the hands of brutal rapists and murderers. Their bodies are hidden in bins, ditches, graves and dilapidated buildings in their own neighbourhoods. Nontsikelelo Tyatyeka’s (21yrs) body was found a year after disappearing, decomposed and stuffed in a neighbour’s bin a shot distance from her home. Noxolo Nogwaza’s body was found in a ditch (24yrs) in front of a local tavern/bar. When her body was found by kids playing in an abandoned building, Nokuthula Radebe’s (20yrs) pants were removed, she was suffocated with a plastic bag and strangled with her shoelaces. Nqobile Khumalo’s ex-boyfriend hid her body in a shallow grave, after raping, beating, and choking her to death. Her eyes had popped out of the sockets.


In 2012, the choke of grief[2] came inside our homes. Behind locked doors, vultures hunting black queer bodies followed them into their houses. Andritha Morifi’s (29yrs) mother found her daughter’s body drenched in blood in her house, her neck stabbed and slit multiple times with a fork and her underwear soaked with blood on the floor. Her murderers were found still wearing her jacket. The body of 24 year old Thapelo Makhutle, was found by his friends decapitated, castrated and his tongue severed in his one-room house. The murderer of Phumeza Nkolonzi followed her into her family home. Inside the bedroom, with her aged grandmother and five-year-old cousin watching, he shot her three times. The first shot he fired, as her grandmother stated was ‘to silence’ them. He was informing them of his intention. The second shot went directly to Phumeza. She asked him “Ndikwenzeni? what have I done to you?” The murderer responded with a third shot that sent her to the ground splashing her blood all over the walls, the bed and onto her grandmother and 5-year-old cousin’s bodies. The neighbours heard Phumeza’s grandmother’s screams, the kind of cry only made by a mother who has lost a child. They were too frightened to go out of their homes and help. They watched from their curtained windows the murderer; gun in hand, walking freely on their street.


This is nauseating. Duduzile Zozo’s (26yrs) body was found lying in a yard opposite her home. She had been raped and strangled and a toilet brush had been shoved inside her vagina. Similarly, Gift Disebo Makau (24yrs) was found raped, strangled with a wire around her throat and a hose pipe with running water was forced down her throat to her stomach. Both women were left lying in their neighbour’s yards. The brutality of their murders continues to torment their family members every day.


Violence is revolting. Writing about death and violence is even more revolting. Doing this here and narrating these deaths is not to produce a “pornography of violence”. Rather, what is more difficult in this case is, as Cathy Cohen (2011: 129) argues is going “beyond the brief memory of the deaths towards a more comprehensive, ongoing and long-lasting analysis of violence”. We, collectively, need to put an end to these horrendous brutalities.


Over the years, as members of the lgbt community we have watched with horror, lived in perpetual fear, sometimes calculating how our own deaths would be carried out. Living, when the possibility of death is an everyday reality, is risky. Perpetrators plan new victories over black queer bodies. One gunshot is never enough. A knife must pierce through your body more than three times. Strangling must be accompanied by an insertion of a foreign object. Rape is no longer deadly[3]. After the first shot to the head, the third stab to the heart, the choking after the rape – what else is being killed? What more is there to die? These are questions I grapple with as I think about queer bodies in death. Eric Stanley offers the concept of overkill – excessive violence that pushes a body beyond death (Stanley, 2011:9). In relation to the queer body, he argues, “it is not just the desire to simply end a specific life, but the “ending of all queer life”.




Cohen, Cathy. 2011. Death and Rebirth of a Movement: Queering Critical Ethnic Studies. Social Justice, 37(4):126-132.

Matebeni, Zethu. 2014. Death and the modern black lesbian. In Pillay, D, Gilbert, MK, Naidoo, P, and Southall, R (eds) New South African Review 4: A Fragile Democracy – Twenty Years On. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp 183-193.

Muholi, Zanele. 2013. Films4Peace. https://films4peace.com/artist/zanele_muholi. Duration 3:19

Stanley, Eric. 2011. Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture. Social Text, 29(2): 1-19.

[1] A version of this extract appears in Revista de antropologia (São Paulo, Online) | v. 60 n. 3: 26-44 | USP, 2017

[2] Taken from Unoma Azuah’s poem with the same title which deals with the harsh realities many LGBT people find themselves in many African countries. The poem is reprinted in the forthcoming anthology Walking the Tightrope

[3] Here I am referring to Gibson-Graham (2001:241) who suggest suggest a change in the representation of rape – to see rape as ‘death, an event that is final and lasting in terms of the damage it does to self’.