Queering Apartheid

D
aniel Conway, Lecturer in Politics, Department of Politics, International Relations and European Studies (PIRES), Loughborough University, presented a colloquium at CLAGS on February 18, 2009. Following is an excerpt from the paper.
This paper investigates an anomaly in apartheid history whereby the ruling National Party (NP) fielded a “pro-gay rights” candidate in the Hillbrow constituency during the 1987 whites-only election in South Africa. The NP was aided in its Hillbrow campaign by the gay magazine Exit, which encouraged its readership to ‘vote gay’ in the election and published a list of candidates who were favourable to gay rights in South Africa. The Hillbrow campaign is intelligible when the intersections between race and sexuality are analyzed and the discourses wielded by the NP and Exit are spatially and historically situated. The Hillbrow/Exit gay rights campaign articulated discourses about the reform of apartheid in white self-interest and conflated white minority and gay minority rights, thereby contributing to the NP’s justification for apartheid. The NP candidate’s defeat of the incumbent Progressive Federal Party (PFP) MP for Hillbrow, Alf Widman, was trumpeted by Exit as a powerful victory and advance for gay rights in South Africa, but the victory provoked a sharp backlash amongst many white gay men and lesbians who openly identified with the liberation movement. The Exit/Hillbrow campaign problematizes the singular assumptions that are often made about race and sexuality in apartheid South Africa and reveal how political, social and economic crises can provoke reconfigurations of identities that buttress the status quo.
The targeting of white gay voters in Hillbrow and the role of Exit in trying to foster a gay constituency in white South African politics contributes to our understanding of gay and lesbian history in South Africa and the sometimes fraught path it travelled before identifying with other forms of oppression and democratization. It also helps demonstrates that ‘there is nothing inherently or intrinsically anti-nation or anti-
nationalist about queerness’ and that ‘while queer bodies may be disallowed, there is room for the absorption and management of homosexuality’ should there be
contingent political, social or historical circumstances.1 Afrikaner nationalism was avowedly homophobic and the South African state was aggressively heteronormative, but as Charney explains, the NP’s behavior was rooted ‘in the ever-deepening crises of accumulation and hegemony,2 which itself was predicated on wider crises in white apartheid governance. These crises necessitated a reformulation of white subjectivities
and the incorporation of hitherto excluded groups if NP rule was to continue. The intractable undermining of the Group Areas Act (which existed to keep residential areas racially exclusive) in Hillbrow confronted the NP with a dual crisis of the spatial
application of apartheid and an issue which created acute hostility from right-wing
nationalists. The conflation of gay rights with white minority rights and a rejection of race as a signifier by the NP presented the opportunity to resolve these acute tensions, yet did nothing to address the wider challenges of the housing shortages and the domestic and international hostility toward white minority rule. Above all, an analysis of the Hillbrow/Exit phenomenon underlines the importance of conceptualizing racial and sexual (and gender) identity as intersectional and plural as well as articulated and embodied according to contingent circumstances.
1 Puar, ‘Mapping US Homonormativities’, p. 86 and p. 72.
2 Charney, ‘The National Party, 1982-1985’, p. 6.
The final version of this paper will be published in a future edition of the Journal of Southern African Studies.