The Many Freedom Struggles of Trans South Africans
In Field Notes, writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. Following a period of democratization after decades of anti-apartheid struggle, South Africa’s youth continue to reconcile with its impact on the present. In 2015, political science student Chumani Maxwele hurled a bucket of excrement onto a statue of apartheid architect Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, igniting a campaign against statues of Rhodes across South Africa and in Oxford, which houses the prestigious Rhodes Scholars program. In this Field Note, Saif interviews members of The Trans Collective on their work during this campaign and the past decade.
08 November, 2023
South Africa is a country who is no stranger to a good riot. From a history of ancestral decolonial wars, to massive anti-apartheid movements leading up to South Africa’s democratization in 1994, the nation has been chanting the same songs. And while for centuries, trans people have been singing along and fighting the same battles and beasts, the voice and narratives of trans and gender non-conforming South Africans is constantly under siege.
The Rhodes Must Fall student movement of 2015 has had a serendipitous ripple effect on decolonial student movements across the globe. Thousands of student activists marched the streets of Cape Town and occupied the University of Cape Town’s administrative building in protest of the ongoing colonial violence on campus, including elaborate visual monuments and buildings named after colonial figures such as the notorious Cecil John Rhodes, Jan Smuts and Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who UCT now recognizes as, “a former prime minister of the Cape Colony who initiated an unlawful raid that brought war to South Africa.”
Amongst the masses of tireless activists, transgender and gender non-conforming people were instrumental in formulating the ideas and tactics that brought Rhodes down to the ground. Without the leadership of young trans women igniting Black Radical Feminism, there would have been no ripple effect in the UK, no liberation, no revolution. The same masses that sought tools of liberation from trans people are the same masses that sought to erase them from the records. A group of student activists called the Trans Collective refused to allow the erasure, painting their story across the archive forever.
On March 9th 2016, a visual art exhibition from the Rhodes Must Fall movement was expected to be held at the Centre of African Studies Gallery in Cape Town. Out of more than 1000 images demonstrating the movement, only 3 images included a trans person’s face. While masses waited at the doors of the gallery, The Trans Collective appeared for their first public demonstration. Nude, with red paint smeared across their bodies, the collective laid their bodies at the foot of the gallery, daring spectators to “Go ahead. Walk over us, again!”
Aghast, spectators did not take them up on that dare and instead watched silently in the plaza outside the gallery before dispersing in flocks. Inside the gallery was a collective of student activists willing to put their lives and their literal bodies on the line for trans representation, refusing to be wiped out of another page in history.
I spoke to members of The Trans Collective (TC) about their work, its impact and what’s next. Since the student movement in 2015, the collective has grown significantly even though there isn't an official tally of members. With many of the members scattered across South Africa and the world, four members of the TC spoke with me to share their experience advocating for trans rights and representation in South Africa and across the globe.
As a member of the trans community and the collective itself, I wanted to provide an insider’s perspective to challenge harmful media representations around radical trans activism. While I’m deeply familiar with the work of the TC, I conducted my regular journalistic background check online and was reminded of the media’s framing of the collective’s work as a ‘disruption’ of an exhibition. I wanted to know what the collective thought the way our story was told.
Nearly a decade later, many members of TC have relocated around the globe and in an effort to accommodate busy schedules and conflicting time zones, I conducted individual Zoom interviews but have edited and condensed them for clarity.
Carbon Dlamini is a founding member of the Trans Collective. They currently work in the primary education sector as an elementary school teacher. They are passionate about teaching kids IT, coding, programming and mathematics. Outside of their teaching profession, they work as a multimedia visual artist and filmmaker.
Busisiwe Nxumalo is a progressive intersectional internationalist involved in international relations and diplomacy work. They are a researcher and foreign policy advocate who is passionate about LGBTQIA+ rights in Africa. They are currently based in the USA and are continuing to work with the collective digitally.
Dimakatso “Dima” Nchodu is a professional legal researcher at the democratic governance and rights unit. They’re a trans genderqueer non binary person who joined the collective in recent years after participating in the Rhodes Must Fall student movement. The TC has been pivotal to their self acceptance.
Mlingane Matiwane is an entrepreneur in the energy sector. They have co-founded the TC and have gone on to become founders of their own company focused on sustainable energy solutions. They are pivotal in the Trans Collective’s organization and strategization.
For readers who Google “The Trans Collective” and see the articles about our work, at first glance they could perceive the collective as a disruptive force. What would you say to that? Are we disruptive?
We are disruptive on purpose.The whole point is to disrupt the status quo. We have learned from our activist elders fighting in many different fights.They have tried the method of being kind, of sitting down and having so-called friendly debates, where you have to debate your existence. We think that this method doesn't work. People don't want to listen and they don't want to hear a sound argument. It's a messed up idea that we have to argue why we are allowed to exist as a legitimate variation of human existence. Because you now have to argue with people who can't see that you're human, as to why you're a human. They don't' give a ****. We must disrupt them.
Busisiwe I have a love-hate relationship with the word disruption because when you say it, it sounds negative but good can come out of disruption. At the same time it can also be reductive because disruptions aren't the only thing that we're doing.We're doing advocacy work, we're strengthening international solidarity. We're going past and beyond that.
How would you describe the work that the Trans Collective does?
I don't want to box it. It's basically advocating for the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people. Because we all come from different aspects of society and work in different fields, some in corporate, some in NGO spaces, some in art, we conduct advocacy differently in the different work that we do.Personally, I do a lot of work on the African continent with LGBTI+ groups.The last one we did was marching to the UN in protest of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill. It’s a lot and it takes a lot.
The Trans Collective not only takes up space and disrupts cishetero norms, but I think it's also a space where trans people get to be seen.They get to exist and they get to be.They get to be acknowledged, especially in context with a history of struggle in our country. Where they have constantly been erased, silenced and sidelined from the narrative. I think The Trans Collective represents a voice that hasn't always been there or hasn't always been shown.
I think anything that is done by a collective of trans people by default becomes disruptive. The disruption is usually a byproduct and not a goal, right? To disrupt for the sake of disrupting is not necessarily something I say the collective does. To date, the collective has gone through two major reformations. The first major reformation was due by the constituents of the collective at the time, which were trans women. The ideological practices that underpin that was black radical feminism and not black feminism in the general sense, but black radical feminism, to be specific, at the intersection of transfeminism. The second major transformation was with the participation of non-binary members which then brought about the conversation about De-Cisgendering and Degendering.
As a founding member of the collective who has been at the forefront of its conceptualization, even before the 2016 demonstration, when you thought of taking action and creating something, why The Trans Collective?
Because nothing else exists like it, right? An ongoing mobilized force that can respond to the needs of trans people on an ongoing and spontaneous basis. Without needing to do a remobilization exercise every single time that there is something to be done.
As someone who works in primary education, what would you like to say to trans youth across the world?
The only critical message I have to them is that you're not alone. You are not the only trans person who has ever existed. You have many trans ancestors you don't even know about, and there will be more trans people to come despite this kind of targeted attack against us and this societal desire to suppress our existence. By ourselves, it is so overwhelming because you're dealing with entire systems that have monetary support, political support, social support. It feels like we are this tiny, tiny person against our whole system, supported by millions of people. I would deeply implore that person to try to find us. As best you can.
Saif is a multimedia artist, writer and activist from Durban, South Africa. Their journey to decolonization began when they joined the Rhodes Must Fall protests as a student in 2015. Since then, Saif has been exposing intersectional forms of oppression enacted on marginalized people through investigative journalism, filmmaking and performance arts. They are an awardee of AWID and IWMF fellowships.