IN PICTURES | Drag queens strut for change in Khayelitsha
Six drag queens and one photographer took to the streets of the Cape township in a campaign to embrace cultural traditions and fight discrimination with dignity, writes Claire Keeton
A rugby match blared from the TV inside as we waited under a tree outside a Stellenbosch University hostel to meet Belinda Qaqamba Ka-Fassie.
Miss SA Drag 2019 turned heads as they — Ka-Fassie’s preferred pronoun — glided up in gown and heels, with their tiara and sash in hand.
Ka-Fassie, the eldest of five siblings from Elands Bay on the west coast, identifies as a “gender-non-conforming queer body”, wearing drag or “boy drag” depending on how they feel. Their Biko-reading grandmother was Ka-Fassie’s role model for black pride.
“I do not fit in on campus,” says the postgraduate education student, the first in their family to go to university. “I’m Xhosa and it is more Afrikaans. I’m poor and more students are rich. On top of it all I’m queer in a very heterosexual, patriarchal space … and one day it hit me: I need to speak out.”
Ka-Fassie began experimenting with drag in 2014 and found it liberating. “Through drag I got the voice I never had and my activism is born out of drag. Drag became the therapist I never had.”
Ka-Fassie’s recent project, in collaboration with photographer Lee-Ann Olwage, is called #BlackDragMagic. The images — celebrating both queerness and Xhosa culture — were shot on a Sunday afternoon in Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town.
Olwage’s photographs have since received acclaim in North American media and there are plans to show them in an exhibition in SA.
The Khayelitsha shoot, as much performance as visual art, was risky given the harassment and violence often directed at queer people.
“We know how hostile it can be for queer bodies at the taxi rank,” says Ka-Fassie. “And there we were walking as drag queens, with a white photographer. I was so scared but there was no violence. It was a radical act of reclaiming a space where we are often told we don’t fit in.”
THE XHOSA ART OF CROSS-DRESSING
Ka-Fassie comes from a traditional Xhosa family and went through the ulwaluko initiation rite. Xhosa culture is part of their identity and influenced their choice of outfits for the photo shoot.
“In one shot, I wore a white African dress made from a blanket, often worn by males in our culture, and African jewellery worn by women.”
Olwage says the taxi rank was the most nerve-racking of their locations and the only time their local guide said: “It is time to finish up.”
Of the drag queens, Olwage says: “They walked confidently with a lot of pride to a busy spot where they wanted to take the pictures. It took bravery to do this and nobody showed fear.
“I first asked them to come already made-up, not realising that for safety no one travels in drag,” she says. “But I had a small bakkie that served as the dressing and makeup room. Wonderful things unfolded, beyond what we could imagine. I felt privileged to be allowed into their world.”
The process was creative and spontaneous, says Olwage, described by the sisters as “cool” and “crazy”.
Ka-Fassie says: “We wanted the drag queens to co-create their images and share their narratives — to be participants, not just subjects. Each girl could bring what she wanted to tell her story.”
RECLAIMING THE TAXI RANK
Mandisi Dolle Phika, a student and LGBTI activist for Zonwabele in Paarl, also participated in #BlackDragMagic.
“The rank is a hub for homophobia and was very busy, and there we were, boys in makeup and heels. Very taboo. But the taxi drivers don’t allow violence at the rank … unless they are doing it,” says Phika drily. “We looked: ‘Are there any cops? No. Let’s do this.’
“Most people loved what we were doing, though some were throwing comments like we were going to hell and were ruining the male culture. I asked: ‘What male culture? The raping of women, the killing of women?’ I don’t take in negative comments.”
Phika and fellow activists recently wore black dresses for a protest against gender-based violence at Kayamandi township in Stellenbosch.
“We are trying to fight social problems,” says Phika. “I don’t knock and wait. I kick in doors with my high heels.
“We are reclaiming the townships, the taxi ranks, the churches, the health facilities, to make them safer and healthier.”
Phika’s poses — including one wearing only a shirt in front of a church — are intended to provoke. “Nobody goes to church half-naked. It was controversial and I wanted to grab attention,” she says.
This is Phika’s way of reclaiming her past. From Mbekweni, Paarl, she was treated as an outcast at school and told in church that she had a “gay demon”.
When the bullying for being short, skinny, “gay and a nerd” got too much for her, she retaliated by “acting like a bitch”.
Ironically, getting into drag made her popular.
“I came back after one December holiday, wearing the smallest shorts and long grey socks with a fabulous walk like on the catwalk.
“I became one of the cool kids. I was the dancer at every rugby match, the pom-pom girl.”
I wanted to look like my mother, not some white person with long straight hair. Vintage is my styleMandisi Dolle Phika on her choice of outfit for the #BlackDragMagic shoot
Phika describes her mother, Mandisa, as her rock. Her traditional outfit is a tribute to her mother.
“I wanted to look like my mother, not some white person with long straight hair. Vintage is my style. My mother is a domestic worker and my clothes are from second-hand shops. I can do vintage, classic or casual, and even my hair is a pyramid like my mother’s.”
West Coast College student Mthulisi Vee Vuma, 21, is grateful for the support she received from both her mother and father for her identity choice.
“If gays were criticised, then my parents would say, ‘Don’t talk like that,’ ” says the trans woman from Lingelihle, in Malmesbury. “When I was doing grade 12 in Philippi, people were increasingly caring to me.”
Vuma wore a traditional headpiece, necklace, skirt and sandals for her photographs, and held a beaded pipe. She loves her Xhosa culture, she says, but struggles with its denial of the queer identity.
The fact that there is no word for queer in Xhosa contributes to the misperception that it is “unAfrican” says Ka-Fassie. The aim of #BlackDragMagic is to challenge this myth.
Grade 12 student Liyana Arianna Madikizela was thrilled when Ka-Fassie, her role model, asked her to participate.
“I wore a white dress because white is pure,” says Madikizela. “I had one portrait in front of a washing line because I wanted to break the stereotype of what is ‘women’s stuff’. One shot was standing in a field in front of a wall, where I could not be pushed back.”
Madikizela came out as gay in primary school, which made adolescence even harder for her.
“I have grown up in a cruel world, very discriminatory,” she says. “I have had to navigate all my life. Every time I take a step out of the door of my home, I will be called names. I have to think which way to go to school, to the shops, to town.
“Whenever I walk on the streets, I am like clothing, they label me. Living in a township has taught me to be strong and to strive.
“Now we are standing up in the light as a rainbow nation.
“The concept of #BlackDragMagic is powerful.”