The story of a gay white ally of South Africa liberator Nelson Mandela, who was buried today, provides lessons for today’s struggle for LGBT rights, says the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle:
[Mandela] had a special connection to the LGBT community that is … largely hidden and unknown, which may explain why the South African constitution was the first in Africa to guarantee equal rights to LGBT citizens. …
Cecil Williams is an unknown name to most LGBT Africans, but we owe him a lot and he will go down in history as one of the most important LGBT leaders on the continent, if we can only get past our own contemporary homophobia and xenophobia. He has been forgotten by mainstream society precisely because he was both gay and white. No one has fully claimed him, except Mandela.When Mandela was arrested in 1962 before spending his imprisonment on Robbens Island, history has obscured the other man who was arrested with him and who spent several years in jail before escaping to his birthplace in England.
Cecil Williams was a famous English theater director who lived in Johannesburg where he joined the African National Congress. He was trusted enough within the leadership of the nascent African liberation movement to facilitate a clandestine operation that allowed Mandela to safely criss-cross the country, meeting with other local leaders and organizing the armed revolution against apartheid. Their cover – a fancy limousine where Williams posed as a wealthy white landowner and Mandela posed as his chauffeur.
The story comes from the 1999 film “The Man Who Drove With Mandela” about a forgotten gay hero in the battle to end apartheid. The film, which is part documentary, part dramatization, describes productive and revolutionary cooperation between Mandela and a gay white man. As Ogle recalls, their arrangement failed once, which led to their arrest:
Apparently, “their goose was cooked” when a South African police officer noticed something strange where a black man was sitting in the back of the car which was being driven by a white guy! So Cecil and Nelson were arrested at the same time. We know what happened to Nelson, but little is known about what happened to Williams. So many times, LGBT people are simply written out of history.
I know there are some contemporary LGBT Africans who will not be comfortable with this story because it challenges their own sanitized image of how international partners should behave in the criss-cross continental journey towards the full liberation of LGBT Africans. Under the autonomy of a so-called “African safety space,” international partners and their organizations should be silent (maybe also repenting of their imperialist sins of the past) while the purity and single-mindedness of the African LGBT liberation process takes its course. The Mandela/Williams relationship certainly does not fit their sanitized revisionist aspiration.
Strange partnerships and undercover closeted relationships can result in surprising rewards for everyone and the effects are clearly not immediate. Nationality and the color of one’s skin are secondary to the intentions of the heart.
The movie Web site IMDB describes the film thus: “During the time of apartheid Nelson Mandela drove around South Africa in a limousine disguised as a chauffeur while organizing the armed struggle against the apartheid regime. But who was the distinguished looking white man sitting in the back seat? Meet Cecil Williams, an acclaimed gay white theatre director and communist.”
One recent review of the film makes a point similar to Ogle’s:
In addition to Williams’ active advocacy for racial equality, he also served as a great enabler to social equality and justice for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) subculture at the time. Williams lived and directed theater productions in Johannesburg, South Africa as an implicitly gay man.
Though his colleagues were not familiar with the existence of gay South African culture, they recognized that Williams identified as gay.
Subsequently the issues of social justice and equality, specifically discrimination against GLBTQ, became an important part of the overall movement. Post-apartheid South Africa later became the first country in the world to include sexual orientation as a protected, constitutional right.
The tragedy of apartheid can be so overwhelming that often times it may be difficult to find lessons. The uprising against apartheid shows the need for cross-cultural collaboration to end injustice, and the need for coalitions of diverse peoples to achieve equality. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
From the film, “The Man Who Drove with Mandela,” one is reminded of the importance of recognizing the overlap between racial and social equality within social justice. This movie paints a portrait which calls for social awareness and reassessment of myopic attitudes, perspectives.
Ultimately, the film serves as a model and an inspiration for the GLBTQ community and for the general public to become allies.
For more information, read Ogle’s full column in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News: “The gay man who drove with Mandela.”
- African LGBT activists praise, mourn Nelson Mandela (76crimes.com)
- What African LGBTs can learn from Tata Mandela (76crimes.com)
- Nelson Mandela’s Impact On Gay Rights Discussed By South African Journalist Mark Gevisser (huffingtonpost.com)
- Mandela’s LGBTQ Advocacy Often Falls On Deaf Ears (bilerico.com)