A group of women sing and gyrate outside a police station in Vosloorus, an impoverished township to the east of Johannesburg. Perspiration pastes the T-shirts they’re wearing to their ebony skins. The fiery sun reflects off the placards they’re waving, some of which read, “END POLICE HOMOPHOBIA” and “LESBIANS ARE PEOPLE, TOO.”
Phumzile Nkosi, a local member of the Coalition of African Lesbians, says, “We are angry because we have made statements to the police because lesbians here have been raped. But there’s nothing being done.”
But Brigadier Max Masha, chief of the local police, says as far as he’s aware there haven’t been any “truly serious” crimes against lesbians reported to his office in recent years.
Local lesbians, however, scoff at the mere mention of the Vosloorus police. Nkosi says, “This police station (is) a bad place. If you think of coming here, it’s like – ‘Oh hell no, I am going to a small hell.’”
Sweeto Makghai explains, “I came here to report a case, and they treated me as if I was the criminal. They had to interview me first. (They joked), ‘Are you male or female?’ When I say, ‘I’m a female,’ they just looked at (me). They don’t know their story at all. Maybe they need more training, I don’t know.”
Vania Cruz, another lesbian living in Vosloorus, says “homophobes” assaulted her last year, and when she reported the case to the police, the officers were “slow” to take her statement, and also “made jokes” about her.
International human rights groups claim the Vosloorus police and the South African police in general discriminate against homosexuals.
Natasha Vally, of the country’s Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, says the South African police often “brutalize” lesbians in particular, while making “homophobic slurs.” She adds, “In Vosloorus not too long ago, six women were beaten up in police custody.”
Masha denies these allegations, emphasizing, “When we serve the community, we don’t first ask people what sexual orientation they are. We serve everyone equally.”
‘They touched my private parts’
The Brigadier insists the Vosloorus lesbians have a “vendetta” against the police because of two “scenes” from the recent past. “The first one is they were drunk in public. And the law of this country says someone who is drunk in public must be arrested. They were arrested,” he says.
Nkosi denies they have ever been intoxicated in public. “We were at a private party when they arrested us for drinking in public. It was at a private venue. The police later released us without charge, because they knew we would be found innocent in court.”
Masha continues, “The second incident involving them is when they were having a big party at four o’ clock in the morning.... Community members phoned us complaining about the noise. We went to attend to that complaint. And they (the lesbians) got arrested because they refused to stop making a noise and resisted arrest.”
The lesbians acknowledge they had a party, but have a different version of how events unfolded.
“We were actually attacked by the police,” claims Eric Sehaole, a DJ at the party. ”They came in; they didn’t ask any questions; they didn’t give us any warning; they just went in there, and took everyone. We were thrown into the (police) vans and brought to this (Vosloorus) police station.”
The host of the party was Thandi Francisco, who says, “The police stormed into the house and attacked us with pepper spray. Then when we all ran out the house, everybody was arrested.”
She goes on to say, “I wanted to walk, but they dragged me to a police van. They are very homophobic; they had great fun touching my private parts. They said they were checking to see if I am a girl or a boy.”
Masha responds, “They (the lesbians) are just lying blatantly! We said to them, ‘Open a case (against the officers who allegedly did this); give us a statement so that we can open a case.’ But they did not want to open a case. So we can’t investigate (this allegation) if there’s no statement.”
Nkosi says there’s “no point” in filing charges against Masha’s police officers, given that past cases involving lesbians “just disappear” at the Vosloorus police station. She adds, “We know the police won’t investigate themselves!”
Nkosi says if she and her fellow lesbians could afford to pay legal fees, they’d sue the police for their alleged “abuse of power.”
Masha denies Nkosi’s claims. He stresses, “If charges are laid against my police officers, South Africa has a special division that will investigate such charges, at no cost to the complainants.”
Gays and lesbians also in police service
The police commander says “it doesn’t make sense” for the police to discriminate against homosexuals because the service is “filled with officers who are gay and lesbian. So, we are not discriminating at all. In this station, there are people who are gays and lesbians, and we work with them. So we don’t have a problem with them.”
Masha insists local lesbians are making “all these false allegations” against his officers because they want international funding. He says, “From my point of view, they’re trying to use the police to build their own profile.”
But he repeatedly emphasizes that the Vosloorus police remain dedicated to “good relations” with the local lesbian community. “We want to serve them. We want them on our side,” he says. “It is to our advantage that we are on good terms with them, because they are our eyes there in the community to see when crime is committed. So they are actually our helpers.”
Masha is being “very optimistic,” says Nkosi, explaining, “Obviously, if the police’s attitude changes towards us and they prove themselves willing to investigate crimes committed against us, we will help them. But not until then.”
Local and international NGOs say the extreme tension between lesbians and the Vosloorus police is mirrored in communities across South Africa, with few signs of any future reconciliation.