Live Mag

To be young, black and transgender in South Africa

by: Asanda Gura - 25 June 2015

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Sandile Ndelu, who prefers being called Sandi, is a 22-year-old postgraduate law student at the University of Cape Town. She is originally from KwaZulu-Natal in a small town called Umkomaas. She is also a transgender woman. We spoke to Sandi about what it’s like to be a young and black transgender woman and what she thinks about Caitlyn Jenner’s story and transformation and what her story will do for the transgender community.

Live SA: How would you define transgender?

Sandi: First of all, you have to be cognisant of the difference between sex and gender. In our everyday thinking, sex and gender are directly linked, but there are cases where our sex and gender don’t match. For the transgender body, sex, in terms of your anatomy, does not correlate with your gender identity.

Live SA: How did your family react when you came out as being transgender? How is your relationship with them now?

Sandi: My family shies away from frank talk and confrontation. We’re afraid, sometimes unwilling, or ignorant about wanting to speak about things that we may be worried about, or the things that we may be thinking about. Of course we allude to it sometimes, but it’s never something progressive, where they say things like, “Help me understand,” or “What is going on?”. There hasn’t been any of that yet.

Live SA: How important are pronouns?

Sandi: The most hurtful thing is when people refuse to acknowledge you as whoever you want to be acknowledged as. Like acknowledging me as a woman, using the pronouns I prefer, whether it’s “he”, “she” or “they”. I think it’s hurtful, disrespectful and alienating. If people can’t even listen to you and respect what you are saying it is very hurtful. This is why pronouns are so important. Before I die, one thing that I want to see this world do, is, straight after saying hello, people asking one another, “So which pronoun would you prefer?” It’s so important, it speaks to the core of human dignity, of respecting the person, their body, and their mind. It speaks to respecting them as a person. It may seem insignificant but it could take someone to bed and they could cry the whole night about it, for something that you did just in passing you didn’t even realise.

Sandi Ndelu

Live SA: What can be done to get communities and people educated about being transgender?

Sandi: I think first and foremost, we need to develop a language for it in our African languages. We have black thinkers and black thought leaders who are knowledgeable about these issues, people who know them and who also understand them. I think they need to take their academics to another level and start developing a language about being transgender, because that’s where we’re most lacking. A person cannot go to rural Eastern Cape use words that the people don’t understand. When you’re going into these places with terminology such as heteronormativity and patriarchy, they will not understand. It doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing it down but it’s creating a narrative that we as African people can understand.

Live SA: How important are transgender associations or organisations? Which ones are you involved in?

Sandi: They are important as a matter of empowering yourself with knowledge, with different perspectives as well as educating ourselves. They’re also important for just having support, as the associations and organisations create a supportive space of people who know and understand what you’re going through and want to help you and be a part of your struggle. I am involved in a Facebook page called Guerilla Feminism South Africa which I moderate with three other women. Alternatively, Rape Crisis is very progressive in dealing particularly with a problem that I think women suffer from, from across all boards. Whether you’re a cis (short for cisgender, opposite of transgender, a term used to describe someone whose gender identity matches their anatomical gender at birth) woman, bisexual woman, black woman or a trans women, chances are you’re going to experience violence. Other associations or organisations are Rainbow UCT and The African Gender Institute at UCT.

Live SA: What are the main problems transgenders have to face at UCT?

Sandi: There are a lot of issues that UCT has failed to address in terms of transwomen and transmen. Our student cards have a Mister or a Miss which can be traumatic for the individual that does not identify with the title attached. Another issue is residence allocation. If you are a transman or a transwoman and are unlucky enough to be placed in a res that is mono gendered, that can be a problem as you will feel alienated and unsafe and no one should have to face that.

Live SA: What do you make of Caitlyn Jenner’s story and transformation and what do you think her doing this will mean or do for the transgender community? 

Sandi: I think it’s amazing. Every time a trans body is able to occupy its own space in its own terms unapologetically is something I think is a victory for us all. To be quite honest, I don’t think her story and transformation will do much in South Africa. Except for a few status updates on Facebook of some activist not wanting to be left behind. I really don’t think it means anything for a trans person who has to take a taxi, or for a trans person who doesn’t have passing privileges like Caitlyn Jenner and for a trans person who has to exist within a community where death is something that they are scared of everyday, it’s a real thing. I dont think that having Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair looking all fierce is going to significantly affect the lived experiences of trans people in South Africa.

This is the second story we have done on being transgender in South Africa, you can read the first one here.

Tweet me: @AsandaGura

Images: Shafeeqah Sollons