The Right To Just Be Me

By Khanyisile Msebenzi

In my first year of studies I had to write an assignment that included reflecting on how I express my African-ness.  I was baffled, because my being African should not require me presenting myself in any way other than my authentic self.  So there shouldn’t have to be a uniform or identifiable way to be African.  Similarly with Human Rights, I have a right to be the human I decide, or feel I want to be, how I want to be, when I want to be, and yet we live in a country and in a time in the world when how I am is being challenged every day.

Please read on before you come at me about 21 March being about those that lost their lives fighting the apartheid system and for the black majority to enjoy basic Human Rights in South Africa. And 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville Township, 69 unarmed black men, women and children lost their lives, gunned down by a ruthless government.  Those basic Human Rights we won due to the apartheid struggle are very important, but it’s time to expand upon them, expand upon them fast, and we shouldn’t have to require the Constitution for this to happen, for you and me to just BE who we are.

Photo by Bruce Mars

What I have been thinking about though is the need for us and for me, to go beyond the need to have my human rights recognized.  Rights listed by some elite and privileged people in corridors of power in Switzerland.  What happens when I stop seeking for someone else to recognise aspects about me as equal to theirs, others, the group and just own it, without seeking permission?  I really start to BE FREE.

I am a black female living in South Africa, I basically grew up here even though I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I speak isiZulu and SePedi like a South African, I have done all my schooling here and I also speak French as well as Lingala and I am proudly black and African.

I am what they call born-free because I was born in June 1994, I don’t know whether I am Gen-Z or a millennial, those categories hardly matter to me, but born-free, is everything to me.

Photo by Tyler Nix

I am a 24 year old young black female, who identifies as bisexual.  I have had boyfriends and I have had girlfriends.  I don’t have a preference, but my last two serious relationships and my current relationship have been with women.  Coming out as bisexual to my very Christian family was the hardest, but even harder was dealing with the community I grew up in and lived in for over two decades.  Tembisa and especially the church I grew up in rejected me, cancelled me, taunted me and told me I did not have the right to choose whom I date, as a woman I should only date men.   To them I do not have the right to be a different sexual orientation and importantly I did not have the right to flaunt what made them uncomfortable.  So my girlfriend and I did not have the right to stroll hand in hand to the store, a simple privilege reserved for the “normal ones” in heterosexual relationships.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

As a tourism student and working in the tourism industry, I can see how un-free many black people are.  I experienced this in how many of my fellow students who lined up for NFSAS were black, I don’t remember seeing a white student in a NFSAS queue or when we rallied for students to be allowed to register even when they still had outstanding fees.  I didn’t qualify for NFSAS because my ID indicated I was born in the DRC, but my experience was lower income black South African.  Even though I was South African but excluded from NFSAS assistance, the struggle of black students was the same as mine. We almost missed the right to real self-determination by virtue of not affording tertiary fees.  In our current reality, I believe tertiary education is the key to real self-determination, but this is a debate for another time.

I work for a tourism agency mainly organizing bookings, excursions and trips for incoming groups from countries like China, Germany.  99% of the properties we deal with are white-owned, a few Indian and coloured-owned, and only two are black owned of the thousands of properties and service providers we work with.  Yet, the people working in the hotels, lodges, transport services, tour operators mostly black.  It is expensive to start a business as a transporter or a lodge owner, I have looked into this.  But more difficult is getting the relationship with a tourism company like ours to recommend and use your services or property.

Human Rights have not created a culture of fairness or an environment of equal opportunity in South Africa, not to discount the human rights protected in our Constitution, of course they matter, but for me and the life I want to live, they are not enough.

So I have come to view Human Rights differently, or rather more deeply, and I am no longer satisfied with “surface” level rights, I want more.  I want the right to be a full expression of my full self as a young, black, bisexual, South African woman of Congolese origin.  I am so many things; some are fluid but all parts of me matter the same and when I suppress or restrict a part of me, a part of me dies.   The death of a part of me is like having a dead eye or a dead arm.  I guess we are different and privileged in that way as a generation.  I have been depressed from my mid-teens because I could not be a full expression of myself.

What I loved about the opportunity to write my perspective on human rights here, right now is that I am able to use concepts in a way that makes sense for how I am trying to be.  Girl Boss – My World, My Rules, is such an apt platform, and here is the thing that struck me, by living in my own world, living according to my rules and what drives me, does not mean I infringe on the next person’s world.  We all ought to be in our own mini worlds, in our bubbles that rub and bounce against each other but don’t burst the other and sometimes join together and yet make space for each other, for another bubble to be, all of us in one life giving bubble, world, we call planet Earth. 

Photo by Shelby Cohron

And I think the way to get to this, is for all of us to be busy with being our authentic selves. Instead of looking outside of ourselves to be told how and who to be.  When we look outside we then start policing how others should be too and yet we are not made the same.  It may seem as though this would create a sense of disorderliness, it would not because all of us would be able to be full expressions of love and compassion, and being love and compassion we cannot create a world where we hurt each other.

Photo by Marc Schafer
Simi Gumede

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