MPHO A NDABA: 'The River' lays bare the challenges black queer people face

Queerness in South Africa feels like always being perched on the edge of your seat, waiting for the most horrendous violence to be enacted.

Cast of 'The River', showing on DStv and Showmax. Picture: Supplied


The South African liberation archive, as we know in contemporary times, has been criticised for several reasons. One thing that remains consistent in this critique is how remembering the past highlights the dominance of heterosexual men in our memory work. This re-inscribes into our collective psyche the idea that men are the only ones who matter(ed) in the fight for national liberation.

Thinking about the work that was done in the 1990s - intended to grapple with how post-apartheid South Africa might exist with queer people in mind - there are several people who as a result of their activist work saw the legal and policy landscapes of post-apartheid South Africa accounting for sexual orientation.

Among these are the likes of Dr Bev Palesa Ditsie, Simon Nkoli, Paul Mokgethi, Phybia Dlamini, Lesley Mtambo, to name a few. There are also others, whom the liberation archive excludes, on the basis that anti-queerness saw them live in perpetual fear of being ostracised – these are queer ancestors we will never know.

To have post-apartheid South Africa existing with queered futures, all aspects of life – arts, law, language, politics, media, and everyday public life – have been necessary sites of carefully considered forms of resistance. For as long as I have been aware of myself as a queer man and how I exist in South Africa, one of my interests has revolved around the function of cinema as a mode through which queer lives are accounted for – expansive, complex and uncontainable as our lives are.

One of the many pieces of black South African cinema I found myself recently grappling with, is The River. This is a telenovela created by Phathutshedzo “Phathu” Makwarela and Gwdyion Beynon of Tshedza Pictures. The River as an imagined world depends on several cinematic conventions (deliberate choices of languages, wardrobe design, casting, and scripting), all of which are employed to explore set subthemes, among these being power, greed, and class disparities in South Africa.

Like any other production we have seen since the end of apartheid – and here I am speculating – this telenovela is, first and foremost, seeking to entertain. However, this is a foundational approach to the understanding of entertainment; it does not exist outside of the writer’s own ethical and moral and world-making(s). By this I mean that there are certain influences that inform what is considered worthy of including and excluding when “entertainment” is constructed. By committing itself to excavating and presenting to us what mirrors everyday black queer living, as part of everyday public life of The River’s world, one can conclude that this reflects the interests of the telenovela’s creators.

This matters because queerness in South Africa feels like always being perched on the edge of your seat, waiting for the most horrendous violence to be enacted. Here the point is simple: queerness is a forever permanent site of violence, considering the heteronormative nature of our society. To then constantly be in fear is to rely on historical spectacles of violence we have seen in this country – it is also worth noting that the enactment of violence is multilayered in such a way that it comprises direct, indirect, mundane, and slow forms of violence. To make sense of the normalisation of this state of fear, I find useful this notion: Female Fear Factory, which Pumla Dineo Qgola, a feminist scholar and writer, in Rape: a South Africa nightmare, develops. Defining some of its key tenets, Gqola writes: “The female fear factory, which I also call the manufacture of female fear, relies on quick, effective transfer of meaning. To normalise depends on a combination of seemingly contradictory processes: frequent repetition of performance until the performance becomes invisible. In other words, when we see and hear something over and over again, we stop seeing and hearing it. It retreats to the background where, like static becoming white noise, we come to expect it”.

Furthermore, Gqola in her latest book, Female Fear Factory, spends even more time expanding on how Female Fear Factory becomes maintained: “When I wrote Rape: a South African nightmare, I focused exclusively on rape and how it has historically been set up and propped up as a language. Rape is an expression of patriarchal violence and one that is enabled by the Female Fear Factory. In turn, rape culture contributes to sustaining fear”.

The usefulness of this notion in making sense of anti-queer violence is the very fact that patriarchy does not only target women. And that there is a consistent performance of patriarchal violence, out of which queer people go on to learn about the ways in which such violence is a direct implication of how they exist in the world. Related to this violence, there have been, in post-apartheid South Africa, accounts of targeted killings, signaling a disjuncture between what the Constitution promises and how queer living plays out in everyday public life.

I do not want to die with my hands up and my legs open.

Koleka Putuma

The above quote (from Koleka Putuma’s poetry collection, Collective Amnesia) reflects the everyday violence encountered by black queer people, largely black lesbian women. Other scholars whose work has been important when it comes to documenting this violence include Nechama Brodie, who with her book, Femicide in South Africa, accounts for the number of black lesbian women who have experienced hate killing. Besides the mainstream press reporting on these acts of violence, there are people who have explored this from an academic point of view – among them is Lethabo Mailula, who for example, explores the place of black queer women in post-apartheid South Africa.

It is also worth noting that most recently, there also have been increased number of killings, predicated on hate for queer people – largely targeting black queer people who reside in the townships and some remote parts of the country.

On this basis, thinking of the decision by The River, we get to appreciate what might be an activist approach the showrunners (deliberately or not) espouse. This I say because while it might be the case that I am projecting this idea onto the telenovela and its creators, Nina Simone laments that it is the duty of an artist to reflect the times. Following from this logic, linked to the perpetual threats black queer people encounter in this country, my sense is that showrunners have a responsibility to craft narratives that are inclusive of our lives.

There have been other productions that have attempted to reflect queer lives while tackling the very theme of class The River grapples with. While growing up, I remember watching some of the shows that aired on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). Among these are After 9, Society, Uzalo, and Generations. These, although soap operas and telenovelas may differ when it comes to the lifespan of a storyline, enabled me a glimpse into alternative ways of speaking, writing and being queer.

In The River, there is Andile Dikana (played by Lunga Mofokeng), who comes from a wealthy family. Andile is a cis presenting upper middle-class gay man. During the initial two seasons of the show, we were, as viewers, dealing with a classic case of coming out as a black queer man. This we have seen a lot in South African black cinema – Stoan (played by Zenzo Ngqobe) on Rhythm City, and Senzo (played by Thami Mngqolo) on Generations. My initial anxieties then included the fact that Andile was going to be yet another instance where being queer is simply for comedic relief and that we will not get to see other parts of his life, unrelated to sex or adjacent to the interests of heterosexual women. As time went on, with more seasons, there has been what I consider to be an attempt to give nuance to Andile’s life as a queer man: the exploration of friendship, love, work, sex, and desires. The show went beyond the usual template.

In addition to Andile, we were also later introduced to the character of Tshepiso (played by Gaosi Raditholo), a black lesbian woman. The obvious differences, besides the usual coming out story, can be seen in how class, gender, and the role of religion influence the manifestation of anti-queerness in the South African everyday public life. Tshepiso’s mother is a highly religious woman, whose rationalisation of the rejection of her daughter's queerness is informed by the church. Here we also get to see how black women, as indicative of the very fact that they are the most marginalized, from a socio-economic point of view, in instances where they are also queer, their everyday conditions limit their capacity to feel protected whenever they encounter anti-queer violence. With Tshepiso we also go on to see how disproportionately affected black lesbian women are.

Still thinking about Tshepiso, the fact that she is a black lesbian woman in the township, one who is appearing to be getting comfortable with herself (as we see with her self-expression, as marked by the changing dress sense) that itself is something that sees her deviate from the accepted norms. In episode 53 of the latest season, we see Tshepiso coming to Paulina’s tavern for a beer. This part of the scene is preceded by Khabzela (played by Thapelo Sbogodi), Thuso (played by Presley Chweneyagae), Paulina (played by Tango Ncetezo) and Beauty (played by Galaletsang Koffman) among others, debating her sexuality – the longshot, and bird’s eye view shot, with everyone seated around a table and starring at Tshepiso, is something many of us know very well. I could not help but notice that Paulina and Beauty initially were the ones who defended Tshepiso.

Thinking of toxic and hegemonic masculinities, and how men are likely to listen to one another only, a reflection of patriarchy, the fact that Mabutho (played by Thembinkosi Brian Mthembu), was among those who defended Tshepiso, highlights something interesting about the function of patriarchy and power. Beyond the actual The River, Mabutho defending Tshepiso potentially creates a positive impact, highlighting the ways in which only certain characters can be seen to be respectable while others are not. What this means is that if the aim is to dispel myths about sexuality, the character who gets to extend empathy matters. Linked to this, Rakgadi (played by Tsholofelo Matshaba) potentially might be ignored in the reading of whose empathy towards Tshepiso matter(ed). And this includes both Beauty and Paulina.

The role of Rakgadi is an interesting one in the sense that she seems to have the language. However, within the context I have just described, her role might be seen to be less important – simply relegated to reflect a motherly figure, considering the character’s genealogy, even within the context of everyday black family home and class politics in Refilwe township.

The fact that Rakgadi was Tshepiso’s advocate from the onset becomes downplayed simply because Thuso (as the leader of the homophobic bunch) is most likely to listen to Mabutho.

In this context, the logical thing to do, considering the place of Mabutho in Thuso’s life, would be to have Mabutho play a much more significant role in Tshepiso’s advocacy.

Problematic as this is, when it comes to advocating for queer lives, subversion plays an important role – this is the kind of subversion that depends on politics of recognition when it comes to social groups (more especially when grappling with patriarchy). The validity and impact of this very idea depend on unequal power dynamics. On the other hand, the affirmation of Mabutho as an important male figure depends on the violence that Tshepiso encounters. Interestingly, thinking about violence that black women face in society, men (young as they might be) are very much aware of what their presence means. We do know this. Hence, we also saw Morena (played by Thabiso Ramotshela) giving Tshepiso a knife – which in fact within the broader context of targeted violence speaks to the context of living as a black lesbian woman in South Africa.

A teaching moment comes in the form of Dimpho (played by Matshepo Sekgopi), who comments on Tshepiso’s dress sense (she suggests that Tshepiso wears something girly). It is here where we see Rakgadi stepping in to call in Dimpho, teaching her that friendship is deeper than how the other person dresses. One of the concerns raised by Thuso is that his sister (whom he infantilizes and uses to mask his own obsession with Tshepiso’s sex life) might be sleeping with Tshepiso. However, in the number of dialogues between Paulina and Beauty, these moments are used to denounce these illogical conclusions.

One thing I found interesting was how everyone kept on bringing up Thuso’s own past, that he always brings women home for sex. This I did not find effective as it presented queerness as a choice and immoral, as opposed to a coherent identity. In general, there was emotional chemistry that both Gaosi and Tsholofelo seemed to have developed, appearing to be working in the favor of this storyline. The good thing about these two is that they enabled us as viewers to understand challenges faced by black queer people, doing so without it making everything appear as though we are in a classroom.

Mpho A Ndaba is project coordinator at the SOS Coalition, a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter: @Manofcolor_

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