– Martha Mukaiwa
If there’s any doubt that Namibia’s social justice evolution is queer, one need only witness the wave of a rainbow flag below Windhoek’s bronze statue of Namibia’s founding father as Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe yells a slogan that is often a prelude to pearl-clutching.
“My koekie, my keus!”
A translation of what the gender-non-binary intersectional activist and author is shouting as protesters raise wire hangers in the air ahead of Namibia’s first public hearings on abortion in over 20 years is simple:
“My pussy, my choice!”
In this relatively conservative country where an estimated 90% of the population identify as Christian, reproductive justice has been a long time coming.
In 2o20, non-binary activist and co-founder of the Voices for Choices and Rights Coalition, Beauty Boois, reenergized the reproductive justice movement with a petition to legalize abortion in Namibia which garnered over 62 000 signatures.
A year later, Nthengwe (25), the organisation’s other co-founder who has taken up Voices for Choices and Rights Coalition’s reins in Windhoek, marched determinedly below the jacaranda trees lining the road to parliament in the Namibian capital and made an inclusive and intersectional case for abortion law reform in a country where, barring rape, incest or mortal danger to mother or child, abortion is illegal under the Abortion and Sterilization Act of 1975.
Nthengwe was also a leading activist in last year’s ShutItAllDown protests, which saw hundreds of Namibians take to the streets to rally against the country’s rampant sexual and gender based violence. In the period between September 2019 – September 2020, over 5000 cases of gender based violence, 74 cases of femicide and 800 instances of rape were recorded by the Namibian police.
“You feel a specific level of silencing when you mention LGBTQ+ people in a space that is supposed to be progressive in advancing discourse on sexual and gender based violence,” says Nthengwe.
“Just talk about women, just talk about teenage pregnancy, but don’t talk about how a lot of lesbian women also experience sexual and gender based violence, need access to reproductive justice, and experience corrective rape. Don’t try to make them more visible here because that is not what we are here for. Even though people don’t say this directly, it’s evident in the way that LGBTQ+ experiences are sidelined in the discourse in this country.”
Down the road from parliament at Windhoek’s High Court, Mercedez von Cloete is the transwoman who led the charge against Namibia’s menace of police brutality.
In the early hours of 6 July 2017, Mercedez was at a KFC in central Windhoek when she was approached by two plain clothes policemen, unlawfully arrested and ushered into a police van where a police officer physically assaulted her, finally punching and kicking her amidst transphobic slurs.
Mercedez, a vibrant entertainment industry personality and live music promoter whose star was on the rise as a presenter and MC in 2017, recently won N$50 000 in damages after she sued the Minister of Safety and Security as the minister accountable for the police.
High Court Judge Esi Schimming-Chase ruled in favour of Mercedez and noted that the plaintiff was humiliated and discriminated against because she is a transwoman. Schimming-Chase maintained that the police officer’s conduct was unacceptable and shameful.
“This case was not only about a trans woman who was beaten by police officers or about the fact that LGBTQ+ rights are not recognised here, which is why the police think that they can get away with it,” says Mercedez. “I’m a woman, first of all, and women have never benefitted from the various social protections that are in place.”
Hopeful that her win has set a precedent that will dissuade Namibian law enforcement’s abuse of power and use of excessive force, Mercedez reflects on the future a few days after the judgement.
“I feel fulfilled, affirmed, accepted and embraced,” says Mercedez who is overwhelmed by the recent outpouring of love and support from people from all walks of life.
“It is not only a win for the queer community and that is what absolutely lights up my heart,” she says.
“I’m so in love with Namibia again. I wanna be here to see people come into their own and kick the door of that closest wide open. I want to see them come out, live their truth and be absolutely fabulous citizens of this country.”
At the same court in central Windhoek, queer civil rights activist on the reproductive justice frontline and co-founder of Equal Namibia, Omar van Reenen (25) has been a leading voice, organizer and commentator as Phillip Lühl (Namibian) and his husband Guillermo Delgado have tirelessly fought to have Namibian citizenship granted to their three children born through surrogacy in South Africa.
In a groundbreaking ruling in October 2021, High Court Judge Thomas Masuku cited Article 10 of the Constitution, which provides for the right to equality, to grant citizenship to the same-sex couple’s son Yona. Judge Masuku remarked that Namibia is a secular state and that the Constitution’s provision of “justice for all” applies regardless of sexual orientation.
At the time, the couple’s lawyer Uno Katjipuka-Sibolile recognised Masuku’s judgement as a double win for Namibians and said: “This is a big win for same-sex couples and especially a big win for Namibian children born outside Namibia by way of surrogacy.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs recently announced plans to appeal Yona’s citizenship case in the supreme court. A protest against what Equal Namibia calls “state-sanctioned homophobia” took place on 15 November.
In the last two years, Namibia has been under immense pressure to reckon with its endemic sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), its outdated and unrealistic abortion laws, its scourge of police brutality, and to deliberate on issues of surrogacy where Namibian law is silent.
In a country that is yet to repeal a discriminatory Roman Dutch-common law that criminalizes sex between men and effectively legitimizes Namibia’s widespread homophobia, transphobia and general hatred of queer identities, it is ironic that the young activists leading some of the country’s most prominent social justice movements are queer.
Activists such as Nthengwe, van Reenen and Mercedez live in a country where six years after independence, as the fledgling republic began to shape its national identity, founding president Sam Nujoma declared that homosexuality should be condemned and rejected. The founding father doubled down on these comments in 2001 encouraging police to arrest, deport and imprison gay people.
20 years later, after the stage had been set to discriminate against Namibia’s LGBTQ+ community with impunity, van Reenen, who uses they/them pronouns, acknowledges their relative privilege as a cisgender, male-presenting, sometimes white-passing coloured person, before considering the shape and texture of LGBTQ+ discrimination in the country.
“Discrimination looks like the fact that I am not given the appropriate attention and care in the healthcare clinics in this country. The fact that I can’t love and marry who I love freely in this country and the fact that a private citizen, without a warrant, can use deadly force to arrest me just because I am having sex with another man,” van Reenen says.
“Discrimination looks to me like the fact that, on a community level, you are always seen as less valuable, as second class and less worthy just because of who you love. It looks like the fact that sexual orientation was taken out of the 2007 Labour Act as a prohibited ground of discrimination and it was removed by Minister Kawana because we are apparently illegal and criminal in this country.”
In May of this year, SWAPO Party Youth League (SPYL) secretary Ephraim Nekongo issued a statement in which he said: “SPYL is sickened by the discussion of homosexuals in the August House which overshadows urgent matters… Homosexuality is a satanic, yet demonic practice and must never be legalised in Namibia.”
SPYL is the youth wing of Namibia’s ruling party.
Earlier this month, former youth minister and SWAPO parliamentarian, Jerry Ekandjo launched into a homophobic outburst during a budget review debate at parliament. Ekandjo said: “Why we should not allow gays here in Namibia. We cannot allow a male person to insert his penis into the anus of another man. Is it what we want here? We cannot allow.”
As born-free, queer identifying Namibians labour, research, petition and lobby for a variety of human rights in the country, particularly those of women and girls, one never sees the kind of support accrued for anti-SGBV protests and reproductive justice spill over to LGBTQ+ specific issues and campaigns.
Support of activists such as Nthengwe, van Reenen and Mercedez is conditional and often only extended if Namibia’s queer leaders forego emphasising LGBTQ+ intersections.
If a protest is primarily and specifically focused on the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights, support plummets and the crowds following Namibia’s queer leaders during reproductive justice and anti-SGBV campaigns routinely wane to a trickle.
To explain this phenomenon, Nthengwe draws a distinction between online and offline support of LGBTQ+ issues and rights recognition.
“The support is definitely different. It cascades differently when it’s online or offline. Online we find that there is definitely a lot of support. There are a lot of retweets and a lot of shares in WhatsApp groups,” says Nthengwe.
“People have a different relation to stigma when they are supporting online vs offline. Online, many people have different accounts, they have different personas, they have different freedom and are confident differently.”
Van Reenen adds that the difference in support of LGBTQ+ rights online, in real life and when being counted by name in petitions is due to the reality of dissuasive social stigma.
“There is a lot of social stigma attached to our community where association with us automatically frames you as either queer or a queer lover,” says van Reenen.
“But what I want these young, ‘progressive’ born-free Namibians, especially those who have attended the protests for women and reproductive justice, to know is that LGBTQ+ rights are not only the civil rights issue of our time – like racial justice and equality were the civil rights issue of my grandparents’ and my parents’ time – but LGBTQ+ rights are the civil rights issue of our generation,” says van Reenen.
“Young Namibians cannot normalize state-sanctioned homophobia in Namibia. They will ask themselves where they were in this moment of history. Did they stand on the right side of history?”
Reflecting on why support of LGBTQ+ protests by LGBTQ+ people also dwindles compared to individuals from the community’s engagement in more “mainstream” movements, Nthengwe suggests the deterrents are multiple.
“The cost can be fatal. It can result in other forms of abuse and also in being ostracized by your community even further,” says Nthengwe. “If you’ve been living in an environment where your identity is constantly being invisibilized and erased then you also have paranoia about your safety.”
“Support groups are categorized,” Nthengwe continues. “I think if LGBTQ+ people don’t come to a protest, they’ll definitely come to an event that is organized for an exhibition, a Pride pop-up or an exclusive invite-only event. People decide for themselves how to categorize their support based on the level of safety they feel and the level of visibility that they choose to express.”
When it comes to cisgender heterosexual support of LGBTQ+ rights, both van Reenen and Nthengwe believe a lack of meaningful, real-life support is the result of a combination of stigma and privilege.
“What I’ve observed in the last year that I’ve been conducting and facilitating LGBTQ+ sensitivity training with health professionals and law enforcement officials is that some of them, especially in the Northern areas, have come out to say that they do have cases of perhaps LGBTQ+ related crimes and some of them feel that they cannot take on these cases because of secondary stigma,” Nthengwe says.
“Even families face secondary stigma and I think that is also dovetailed by the privilege that they hold and that they rely on in their own society, communities and in their families.”
Cisgender heterosexual singer-songwriter Lize Ehlers who is an outspoken advocate for the recognition of LGBTQ+ rights and the director of Drag Night Namibia – a community building drag event hosted at Café Prestige each month – says the lack of cisgender heterosexual support for these issues involves protection of one’s socio-economic status.
“People are still very afraid of being arrested or afraid their businesses and income will be affected if they are seen at LGBTQ+ events or marches,” says Ehlers.
“I get straight up threats in my WhatsApp when I post about Drag Night Namibia,” she says.
“We are letting the queer community down every time we do not show up for their work and for their campaigns. Every time we do not share a post or create awareness for the life altering work that they do. Equal, equitable rights for the LGBT+ community of Namibia is what we need to strive for daily.”
While support of protests and petitions is crucial, Ehlers knows the work of advocating and showing up for Namibia’s queer community goes beyond one’s visibility at events.
“Hire queer people,” she suggests. “Attend queer shows. Go to the court when a queer person is being persecuted and prosecuted. Include queer people in workshops and educational campaigns. Do not entertain defamatory speech and or jokes. Stand up for queer people in conversation.”
As a variety of young, queer activists continue to lead Namibia towards a future in which its people can safely and lawfully access reproductive justice, have citizenship for their surrogate children confirmed and in which there is zero legal and social tolerance of sexual and gender based violence, Nthengwe and van Reenen recognize but are not swayed by the comparative lack of support of LGBTQ+ issues despite extensive queer labour because the future they envision is equal and intersectional.
“I don’t care who shows up,” says van Reenen. “If I have to stand there alone, I’m going to do that. Because this a democratic country, this is a constitutional democracy, and I’m going to hold the state accountable until every marginalised person is free and equal, not only LGBTQ+ people [but] women, the indigenous community, people with disabilities and people from lower social-economic backgrounds.”
Dubbing 2021 the year that will go down in history as “the year of LGBTQ+ civil and human rights,” van Reenen also pays homage to those who came before them.
“Where we are today with Equal Namibia and with the LGBTQ+ movement is because of those queer elders who have come before me. I stand on my queer ancestors’ shoulders in 2021,” van Reenen says.
“The future is equal, and liberation for the LGBTQ+ community will ring. It’s not a matter of if but when.”
This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Martha Mukaiwa and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.