By Julia Lowe
Despite having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, South Africa has no law specifically protecting the human rights of transgender people. But organizations like Iranti-org fight for the protection and support of the trans community, gaining progress from the ground up and the government down.
Founded in 2012, the Johannesburg-based media advocacy group Iranti-org (Iranti is Yoruba for “memory”) fights for trans, intersex and lesbian rights. Through a combination of community outreach and government dialogue, Iranti works to influence the implementation of trans-affirming legislation.
“We’ve seen several strides,” said Ntuthuzo Ndzomo, advocacy officer at Iranti. “The rights of trans intersex and nonbinary people have started being recognized in the writing of policies.”
Behind a stately red door sits Iranti House, a Brixton property the organization purchased in 2021. Iranti House serves as a home base for the organization and as a safe space for members of the queer community. The white stucco walls of the fortress enclose a serene complex that is equal parts home and studio. Adorning the interior and exterior walls of the open layout are photographs of protests and queer couples – reminders of the struggling communities Iranti serves.
Through a Zoom call, Iranti trans rights officer Sylvester Kazibwe, who is based in Uganda, said South Africa has a “misconception that the trans community is also catered to under the progressive laws in the country,” but most trans people do not feel protected or provided for by the country’s government or laws.
“Our constitution has been around for 29 years. But if you look at the numbers of murders or rapes, it’s not decreasing. We’ve got a hate crimes bill that is 11 years old and never passed. And then you ask yourself, why?” said Zsa-Zsa Fisher, planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning officer at Pan Africa ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association). “We have activists that are going to bury LGBTI people almost every weekend, because of a hate crime. But nothing gets done.”
In 2018, the South African government introduced the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill. This bill would “create harsher sentences and mechanisms for restorative justice if people want to work in a mechanism beyond incarceration,” said Roché Kester, director of the LGBTI and Others Desk in the Office of the Gauteng Premier.
After a yearslong legislative process, the bill was adopted by the South African National Assembly on March 21, but has yet to be signed into law. But while the bill sat before Parliament, Iranti created its own mechanism to target anti-LGBTI hate crimes: Iranti Margins to Mainstream. Developed in 2020, the app allows citizens to report LGBTQI-targeted hate crimes.
Gugu Mandla, documentation officer at Iranti, is the primary officer responsible for the app’s implementation. The hate crime and hate speech cases uploaded to the app help Iranti create a knowledge database that can then be used to hold law enforcement accountable for investigating anti-LGBTI violence.
“We allow the people within the community to also upload (cases), so it’s not about us, Iranti, uploading those cases, but also allowing the people in the community to use the app, track the trends and then try to find ways to use interventions to engage with the various government departments,” Mandla said.
In addition to physical violence, transgender South Africans also often experience bureaucratic violence as they change their legal gender markers on identification documents. On the South African national identity card issued by the Department of Home Affairs, a citizen’s gender is embedded in their identity number.
“The first six digits are the year, month and day that you are born, but then the very next four digits are indicative of gender,” Kester said. If an identity number’s seventh digit is 5 or higher, they are identified as male. Lower numbers are identified as female. This leaves intersex and nonbinary South Africans confined to a binary gender indicator on their identity cards, even down to the numbers.
Act 49, a measure passed in 2003, created a mechanism for legal gender recognition for trans people. The document details how those who wish to change their gender documentation would do so on ID cards, passports, etc. However, the act has its limitations, including requiring that hormonal or surgical transition has taken place before a change in gender marker can be processed. On top of that, trans applicants face longer wait times – sometimes months – than cisgender applicants to receive their new documents.
To counteract the act’s weaknesses, the South African Parliament approved the National Identification and Registration Bill for public comment on Feb. 18. This bill contains the Identity Management Policy, which calls for randomized ID numbers that no longer indicate gender. The current binary gender identification is not only exclusionary to intersex and nonbinary people but also fails to protect transgender people whose gender expression does not match their identity number.
Iranti also targeted Act 49 by drafting a standard operating procedure for the Identity Management Policy, Ndzomo said, that details how Department of Home Affairs officials need to process trans, intersex and nonbinary applicants and in what timeframes.
Along with Iranti’s creation of standard operating procedures for the Department of Home Affairs, the organization also influences policies by delivering education on gender and sexuality.
“Unfortunately in South Africa, there’s a huge problem with education around LGBTI issues in general,” Kester said. “We don’t get it in schooling, whether it be primary, high school or tertiary.”
Iranti’s media advocacy includes education around sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC). Working with government departments within South Africa, international human rights structures and local LGBTQI+ organizations requires this education to be frequent and ongoing.
“It’s not an easy road,” Ndzomo said, “but we are also trying to be kind as activists and make sure that we strengthen the relationship that we currently have, and (that) we don’t lose it.”
“You have to change hearts and minds,” Kester added. “You can give as much education about the subject as possible, but if you don’t let the penny drop in terms of humanity and compassion, it won’t work. They’ll see ‘queer,’ ‘gay,’ whatever, but they won’t see the human being.”
To strengthen the organization’s approach to SOGIESC education, Iranti’s programmes manager, Nomsa Manzini, is advocating for increased sexuality and gender diversity curriculum in schools.
“This generation that we have right now, it’s going to grow at some point. But if we’re going to grow a generation that is still homophobic, we’re fighting a losing battle,” Manzini said. “And that’s why these systems need to change from the ground.”
As state legislatures in the U.S. rage on as a battleground for trans rights, Iranti’s efforts to push legislation, culture and community forward offer a look into how the entire global culture around gender can shift to make a safer world for trans people.
Julia Lowe is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @juliamlowe.