Trigger Warning: This story includes references to sexual assault and violent crime.
Eudy Simelane was born on 11th March 1977, in Kwa-Thema, a township in the Gauteng province, southeast of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her mother was called Mally and her father was Khotso Simelane.
Her interest in football started when she was only four years old, demanding her brother Bafana always took her to football practice with him despite it not being a sport commonly played by women at the time. Her interest and passion for football soon turned into dedication as she honed her skills and practised every day.
“Five o’clock in the morning, she [would be] at the gym – football was her favourite and her priority”, her late mother Mally later recalled in 2016.
After earning the nickname ‘Styles’ because she was left-footed, midfielder Eudy Simelane joined her local team, Kwa-Thema Ladies, who are now known as the Springs Home Sweepers. Springs Home Sweepers has produced a number of stars including Janine van Wyk, South Africa’s most capped footballer and captain of the national team, who are known as ‘Banyana Banyana’, meaning ‘the girls’.
Speaking to the BBC World Service in 2018 about Simelane’s popularity on the pitch, her father Khotso said: “Everyone came to the ground when she played, number six”. She was a very popular player.
Simelane played several times for the national side, she also coached four local youth teams and wanted to qualify to become her country’s first female referee with the aim to serve as a line official in the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa.
She was a campaigner for equal rights and social change, she was one of the first women to come out as a lesbian in South Africa.
In 2020, her brother, Bafana said: “In sport she was a diamond, scoring beautiful goals. She was a marvellous person, intelligent, everything. It was a package. Everything you would find in Eudy. Jokingly she was playing, teasing others. That is what I miss about her.”
On 27th April 2008, Eudy Simelane’s body was found in a stream by an open field just a few hundred metres from her home in Kwa-Thema. Reports stated she was approached after leaving a pub and robbed of her mobile, trainers and cash. She was then gang-raped and stabbed repeatedly. She reportedly had 27 stab wounds to her chest, face and legs.
Her death shocked many in the community and around the world, and activists claimed that many lesbians in South Africa were targeted for “corrective rape”. This is a crime where the offender aims to ‘cure’ the victim of their sexuality and convert them to heterosexuality. Lesbians are most often the target for these crimes. The term was coined in South Africa in the early 2000s when charity workers first noticed an influx of such callous attacks.
There were four people suspected of the crime. Thato Mphuthi pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Simelane in February 2009 in the Delmas High Court and was sentenced to 32 years in prison; he showed no remorse. Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng stated “Eudy Simelane suffered a brutal, undignified death. She was stripped naked, stabbed, assaulted, raped. What more indignity can a person endure?”
In the Delmas court, the Judge said he believed she and her attackers were known to each other. He added “I’m told she was a famous athlete, it was an attempt to obliterate the evidence. It is a sad, sad state of affairs that a person can be killed for such a flimsy reason.”
The two other men Khumbulani Magagula, 22, and Johannes Mahlangu, 18, pleaded not guilty and were later acquitted of their alleged part in the attack.
“We express relief at the conclusion of the trial, and thank everyone who has supported the mobilisations and campaign to ensure justice,” The Lesbian and Gay Equality Project said in a statement. “We call on all to support the long journey to ensure an egalitarian society.”
In September 2010, another of the four men Themba Mvubu was also found guilty of the crimes and was sentenced to 20 years for being an accomplice to rape and 15 years for robbery. When questioned by reporters in court, he responded: “I’m not sorry.”
Simelane’s sexuality put her in a vulnerable position, something her mother recognised, telling the BBC, “the whole of South Africa knew Eudy was a lesbian”. The unfortunate reality is Simelane’s story isn’t unique – she is one of many victims of similar, horrific crimes in South Africa.
A year before her death, Sizakele Sigasa, a women’s and gay rights activist, and her friend Salone Massooa were heckled outside a bar and called ‘tomboys’. The women were then gang-raped, tortured, tied up with their underwear and shot in the head. No one was ever convicted.
Just a few years after Simelane’s murder, Noxolo Nogwaza, a 24-year-old lesbian, was found beaten and stoned to death in the same township that Eudy Simelane lived.
More than 30 lesbians have been reported raped and murdered in homophobic attacks in South Africa since 1998.
South African Law and Attitudes
However, as a country, South Africa was at the forefront of same-sex rights and became the first African nation to decriminalise same-sex acts in 1998. The country also legalised same-sex marriage in 2006, seven years before the act was passed in the UK and just two years before Simelane’s tragic death.
“The constitution is there but it doesn’t mean anything to anyone,” says Funeka, who was correctively gang-raped and stabbed multiple times. She continued “Violence in the townships is normal. Homosexuality is [seen as] un-African. Patriarchy is everywhere. The way religious leaders read scripture is painful. Children start raping at 14, 15 and take pictures.”
The country has the highest number of recorded rape cases per capita – with one rape every 17 seconds; one in every two women will be raped in their lifetime. It is young, black, lesbian women that often fall victim to violent “corrective rape” crimes in South African townships. Men say that their victims “asked for it”.
According to data released in 2017, 49% of black members of LGBT+ communities in the country are likely to know someone who has been murdered for being LGBT+, compared to 26% of white community members. More often than not, the perpetrators of these awful attacks are not prosecuted for their actions. Around 10 new cases of “corrective rape” are reported each week in communities surrounding Simelane’s home town alone. There were 27,750 rapes committed between April 2008 and September 2008, and the crimes are reportedly getting more violent. This is supposedly because South Africans are outraged that gay people have equal rights, despite the fact that gay people are becoming more visible.
A quarter of men in the Eastern Cape Provinces, when asked anonymously by the Medical Research Council, admitted to raping at least once – three-quarters of them said their victim was under 20, and a tenth said their victim was under 10 years old. A quarter of schoolboys in Soweto described “jackrolling” – which is the local term for gang rape – as “fun”.
Simelane’s case has been an exception though. Her profile and story captivated the nation and brought the issue of ‘corrective rape’ to attention. Simelane’s case was the first “corrective rape” trial to produce convictions.
Most cases take around six years to reach court, which is why most never report it to authorities. The most common reaction from police officers is to laugh at reported cases of “corrective rape”. Witnesses are often disregarded in court too because seeing and hearing a victim screaming is deemed “hearsay, as the woman may be screaming in pleasure and this may be the way they like having sex”.
Legacy and Tributes
Following Eudy Simelane’s death, her mother Mally was instrumental in the fight to change her communities’ views on homosexuality, using her Methodist faith as a platform. She united with her local Pastor in a fight to change attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals in society. Mally was fully committed to fighting prejudice until her passing in 2019. “It opened the eyes of many and it challenged us to deal with the LGBT+ issue,” the pastor said.
A bridge was built over the stream in Kwa-Thema, next to the football field where Simelane’s body was found. The bridge features her face imprinted on it and was built “as a reminder of the freedom, dignity and equality for all”, according to the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project.
Another initiative set up with the aim of changing social attitudes was The Eudy Simelane Memorial Lecture. This annual lecture, in partnership with the Ujamaa Centre at The University of KwaZulu-Natal, The Other Foundation, Pietermaritzburg Gay & Lesbian Network, the KwaZulu Natal Christian Council, and Simelane’s family, aims to change attitudes towards LGBT+ people, particularly within some religious communities. These bodies recognised that for there to be a significant social change, religious communities needed to adopt a new outlook on same-sex relationships and marriage so that individuals could not try to use religious grounds to justify any form of violence against LGBT+ people.
Professor Charlene van der Walt from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Deputy Director of Ujamaa Centre said: “Eudy’s story is an example of what happens to a lot of families and a lot of faith communities, yet the issue of LGBT+ people in faith is often denied or invisible.”
Van der Walt added it was especially important to continue these conversations during the Covid-19 pandemic where LGBT+ people are “vulnerable” because they often are “in a family setting that doesn’t accept” their sexuality. “We have made a massive leap in the right direction,” she said.
In the 2020 lecture, Simelane’s brother Bafana said: “History repeats itself, so now, this lecture is eye-opening to the community and other families that they must not take it as a curse if someone is gay, lesbian or transgender”.
Free Gender is another organisation and they are an LGBT rights organisation that specialises in helping victims of corrective rapes.
And that is the story and tragic death of Eudy Simelane and the horrendous crisis in South Africa. Simelane’s death sent an important message across South Africa and was a catalyst for these projects and conversations to take place.