Rest in Peace, Pitseng Vilakati
It's one thing to know that you live in a place where homosexuality is locked up, locked down, punished by draconian laws and vigilante "justice". It's another to, well, know. When I first moved to southern Africa this year to do HIV/AIDS work, I knew but I didn't know. Oh, I heard about how South African lesbian women have been raped and killed for their sexual orientation even before I came. More recently, there's been the awful Ugandan anti-gay bill. But, somehow—maybe because culture shock gives so much conflicting and overwhelming input, causes one to compartmentalize and shut away one's heart—somehow I'd managed not to think overmuch about the gay and lesbian situation here. Until now.
Swaziland is a tiny country, landlocked and almost totally enveloped by South Africa. The population is only about one million, most of whom live in poverty and approximately 40% of whom are infected with HIV. Being gay or lesbian is not just highly stigmatized in Swaziland, but outright illegal: a recent radio show that hosted a gay man and a lesbian woman discussing HIV fielded one caller who said: "These people should just be arrested. What they are doing is strictly not allowed in the constitution. Government should make it a point that they deal with this organization. It is not needed in the country." Gay marriage is legal in South Africa; the insanely popular, internationally broadcast South African soap opera Generations currently showcases a gay couple. Yet when I stopped a fashionable young woman in the streets of Swaziland's biggest city Manzini and asked her about the Generations relationship, her mouth twisted and she looked away. "No one's happy about that," she said.
I was in Manzini on December 17th, waiting to meet Pitseng Vilakati for lunch. It's summer here; I was in shirtsleeves, my car had been hot, and I was fanning myself after a looong drive into the city. I'd almost failed to meet Pitseng a couple months earlier, at a South African party. It was towards the end of the evening that a friend asked me, "Hey, did you talk to Pitseng?"
"No," I said. "Who?"
"She's right up your alley!" the friend exclaimed. "You've gotta meet her before you go."
I only managed to talk to Pitseng for five minutes—two minutes to establish our mutual interest in gender and sexuality; one minute for her to reveal herself as Pitseng Vilakati, the same woman who'd just shocked Swaziland by announcing her engagement to another woman; one minute for me to get really excited, for her to laugh and give me a hug; one minute for us to arrange an interview. It would be a long trip for me to have lunch in Manzini, but it was totally worth it. It was still worth it when Pitseng canceled our engagement at the last minute and asked to reschedule for the 17th. It was still worth it, I told myself, as I sighed and looked at my watch on the 17th proper. I waited two hours before I packed up my laptop and started the disappointed drive home; I tried calling her, of course, but there was no answer.
Turned out, she'd been murdered.
Since I don't live in her area, I've been tracking Pitseng's story at a distance—and the Swazi media, bloodthirsty and intent on creating a circus, made it easy to track. There was a small furor after the engagement announcement in August, when Pitseng and her partner Thuli Rudd declared their commitment at an upscale restaurant. In September, Thuli Rudd's mother told the newspapers that her daughter had abandoned two children to her care and refused to give any help supporting them. In October, Thuli Rudd was supposedly committed to a hospital after attempting suicide. More recently, the pair was seen in court because, apparently, Thuli had stolen some items from Pitseng—but the wedding was set to go on. Then, on December 22nd, Pitseng's body was identified. She'd been found dead three days before, on Saturday.
When the news alert came up in my email—as the uncompromising Swazi Times headlined it, "Pitseng (22) Found Dead"—I couldn't help thinking back to our so-brief encounter. It's such a cliché, I know, but Pitseng seemed so charming and alive! A petite, pretty girl in bright eyeshadow, she radiated excitement about her upcoming marriage. Though she had a good job with a relatively liberal HIV-related organization and was out of the closet at work, she told me she planned to quit after marrying Thuli. Thuli was President of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Swaziland, and Pitseng referred to her soon-to-be-married-self as the "First Lady". Based on our very quick interaction, it seemed that she saw it as a chance to maximize political action—to really pour herself into making a better Swaziland for gays and lesbians.
Though it wasn't exactly explicit, the media swiftly made it clear that there was one major suspect for Pitseng's murder. Gleefully reported was the fact that Thuli was out of the country when the body was identified, and that she didn't attend her fiancée's funeral. She was detained at the border when she re-entered Swaziland, and on the 31st, it was announced that Thuli had confessed to the crime.
Did Thuli avoid the funeral out of guilt or because she knew the world was presuming guilt? Did she confess because she murdered her lover or because she hoped for lenience if she gave a suitably tearful apology? The paper vaguely notes that she cited "ill treatment" by police, which makes it impossible not to ask—just how voluntary was that confession?
On the other hand, rumors of abuse have swirled both within and without the Swazi media. Pitseng was always committed to the relationship—even as she brought Thuli to court for stealing her possessions, she maintained that she remained in love—but was she committed in the face of abuse? Is it conceivable that she wasn't just unwilling to lose Thuli, but also the political possibilities of the marriage? Is it conceivable that Pitseng dealt with abuse partly because she felt driven to set a good precedent? It's true the world over, including America, that members of highly stigmatized sexualities are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
Even though she chose to live her life in the public eye, I find myself feeling uncomfortable speculating so personally about someone I barely knew, so I'll stop there. The real bottom line for me is, at any rate, this: though I'll never be sure of the "truth," the questions this raises express a larger truth. When an identity is so stigmatized, when a couple sharing that identity chooses to live so thoroughly in the public eye, their stories are terribly twisted—not just to outsiders but, I suspect, to themselves. And it hurts, how the politics causes us to think in awful Machiavellian ways about matters of justice: "I almost hope it's the lover," said a friend of mine upon hearing the news, "then at least it wasn't a hate crime." To which I had to say: "But at least if it's a hate crime, it won't be used to shame every Swazi lesbian for the next twenty years."
That's the bottom line: no matter what, people will continue to distort and exploit Pitseng's story in death, just as they did when she was alive. Even I—in publishing this piece—am arguably not immune. I just hope that there will be some Swazi awareness of how distortion and exploitation shaped her experience—and her death. How distortion and exploitation shapes experience and death for so many stigmatized people all over the world, in Africa and elsewhere, lesbian and otherwise. And whatever comes out in the wake of her life, I hope that courageous Pitseng ultimately felt satisfied with the choices she'd made. I hope she can rest in peace.