– Lia Snijman. Above: This photo, entitled “Portrait of a Drag Artist and Activist”, was taken for the #BlackDragMagic project and won second place in the World Press Photo Contest. Photo: Lee-Ann Olwage.
Abenathi Makinana (25) is a teacher, an activist, loves art and literature, and they are the reigning Miss Drag SA.
(Makinana uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. The usage of singular “they” has been widely accepted by English dictionaries as correct. The Oxford English Dictionary has traced back the use of singular “they” to 1375.)
“Do you mind if I drink my wine in the process?” Makinana asks at the beginning of the interview and gives a mischievous laugh.
“I grew up in a small coastal town in the heart of the West Coast called Elands Bay,” they say. When they add that they went to Graafwater High School, they pronounce the “g” the Afrikaans way.
Another photo of Abenathi for #BlackDragMagic. Photo: Lee-Ann Olwage.
Makinana’s drag name is Belinda Qaqamba ka-Fassie. Here they are at an event at Impulse Cape Town. Photo: Zachary Molete.
They did their BA in Humanities and last year completed their Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Stellenbosch University (SU).
Now they are working at the Centre of Science and Technology (COSAT), a school in Khayelitsha “that recruits learners who show potential in technology, science and mathematical sciences” from the township schools. “We maximise their potential academically and prepare them for […] the fourth Industrial Revolution.”
“I’m really enjoying it. It’s so rewarding,” they say. “Teaching was never part of my plan, but I’m learning so much from education.” They explain that they infuse all of their interests into their education and that they’re seeing positive results coming from it.
Apart from being the reigning Miss Drag SA, they do other work as a queer activist. “My work in activism focuses a lot on pan-Africanism,” they say. “It’s about the black identity with regards to queerness.”
#BlackDragMagic is a project that Makinana started with the photographer Lee-Ann Olwage. They work with victims of queer- and transphobia in townships. “It was born out of stories of black [queer people and bodies] who navigate their daily lives in the townships of Cape Town,” they say. “We wanted to create a space of expression where people are not subjects, but are part of the story-telling process.” They add: “It came from the need of telling stories in the most authentic fashion.”
They talk about how people have written about queerness and black queerness, “but it was never in our voices”. They thus wanted to incorporate black queer people’s own voices and creativity. “I think it was also essentially about reclamation.”
“Also, to show that we exist in each and every space,” Makinana says. “People have this narrow-minded idea that queer people only exist in glamorous towns, they have money, they have glamorous homes, but queer people exist in many facets of society.” They say: “The participants in #BlackDragMagic are people that come from various parts of society.”
They met Lee-Ann Olwage through her project “Queens of Cape Town” which they took part in. When Makinana saw her work, they knew that they could do the project, which had been forming in their mind for a while, with her. They say that Olwage is an amazing photographer who knows how to tell stories.
Makinana incorporates isiXhosa dress code into their drag. “When I started seeing the art of drag, what I always missed was representation. I never saw the representation of the black woman,” they explain. They say that even the black queens did not represent people that looked like them. “I firmly believe that representation matters.”
They say that it is also to challenge culture because it tends to have “these narrow-minded ideas of what masculinity should be”. They wanted to show that there are people who don’t just live “in the borderlines” of masculinity and femininity.
“As drag queens we’re playing with gender, we’re playing with the social construct of gender. Because we don’t bind ourselves to one, I can go to sleep as a man, wake up as a woman, at any given time. That’s just how we do it!” they say.
While they were studying at SU, they started the Simon Nkoli Initiative with a friend. They were also part of Fees Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch, which they describe as “very revolutionary projects of our time”. The problem was that “we were always silenced as queer bodies in those spaces”. They say: “There were pro-black spaces, but they never acknowledged our queerness in those spaces.”
The initiative was firstly to honour Nkoli, “the revolutionary fighter in SA for queer rights”, but it was also created to “bring about conversations, to create robust discussions”. “It was about inviting people of colour, inviting black bodies that have had diverse experiences, to come share and create dialogue. But to also showcase the visibility of queer bodies in Stellenbosch.”
They later successfully continued with the project alone. They had to leave the project when they left Stellenbosch, as they were too busy. They had also worked on this project when they were the chairperson of the society for queer rights at SU, QueerUS, which was then still called LesBiGay.
Makinana says that when they arrived at Stellenbosch, they arrived in a space where it felt like they “shouldn’t have been there in the first place”, both as a black person and a queer body. “It got to a point where we felt like we didn’t deserve to be there,” they say. “There was a feeling that if you were here, you couldn’t speak about issues of representation.” They say that they didn’t speak up initially because “I didn’t want to look like I’m not grateful to be at a prestigious university in Africa, a university my parents could never even set foot on”. “I felt like I was carrying the privilege of being in this space and that I shouldn’t […] speak about the wrongs I see.”
They say that when they joined organisations such as Open Stellenbosch, it helped them develop “a sense of identity and comfortability” because they knew they were not alone. They say that in this space they learnt a lot and it made them become a “sharp activist”.
They explain that after this they did not seek out validation, but rather demanded it. “I demanded that people know I exist.” They say that now they “would speak up at any form of injustice”.
The interview turns to language. “I have never been able to describe who I was in my own language,” they say. “I could never describe my queerness without using English words.” The only isiXhosa terms they could find were derogatory ones. They say that queer isiXhosa people need to come up with the terms “to describe us in our own language”. “It’s something that’s depending on us as Xhosa queer bodies.” They say that they want to return to university and maybe do a PhD as they want to coin those terms.
They had previously done filming and other activist work in Khayelitsha, but they only recently moved there. They knew that they wanted to write about Khayelitsha. They say that they want to experience the community, as that is good ethnography. They hope to become an educational researcher who will then do research on queer education.
“I don’t want the next generation of queer bodies to have the same struggle that I have.”