It was Thursday evening in the city of Mbabne, eSwatini (as Swaziland was officially renamed in April).
Melusi S. Simelane, communications manager of LGBT advocacy organization The Rock of Hope, told The Daily Beast that he wanted a drink and then to get some sleep. One could sympathize. Simelane is the lead organizer of the southern African country’s first ever Pride, which is set to take place in Mbabne on Saturday.
The event, originally reported on by The Daily Beast in April, is going ahead, despite threats to the safety of those attending received by the police and organizers. “This is the first event of its kind, our first opportunity to show our faces to the world and to our country. I am not scared,” Simelane told The Daily Beast.
Male homosexuality is outlawed in eSwatini. An anti-sodomy law is still on the statute books, a British-rule hangover. LGBT couples cannot marry or adopt children.
The country is also Africa’s last absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III, who reportedly described homosexuality as “satanic.” Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini has described homosexuality as “an abnormality and a sickness.” Simelane said Dlamini had once contended that there wasn’t even a word in Swazi vocabulary for homosexuality. “Now he will be forced to address that we are here,” said Simelane.
Despite its anti-LGBT rap sheet, the country’s government has not forbidden the Pride celebrations or obstructed their planning. Pride will begin on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. local time, with participants—Simelane is estimating a crowd of around 2,000—gathering at the Prince of Wales stadium opposite Coronation Park in Mbabne.
At around 9 a.m., the country’s first ever Pride march will get underway and rove through the city, before the procession makes its way back to the stadium and an all-day festival of speakers, entertainment, food, and shopping. Visitors and LGBT campaigners from South Africa, the U.S., and the U.K. are expected to attend.
“It’s crazy,” Simelane said of organizing the event. The BBC will be reporting from the event, as will Al Jazeera, he said. “It’s big, really big.”
“We can’t forget the LGBT people from Swaziland, and their allies, who are coming in their thousands,” he added. “They have told us, ‘Even though the organizations we work for have tried to distance themselves from Pride, we will come in our own personal capacity.”
He paused. “We are going to look back on this day and say this was the day it all started. The Rock of Hope was founded in 2011, but this will be the day the government starts paying attention to us.”
The police have been “incredibly welcoming, supportive, and professional,” he added, “up until a media report saying they had ‘OK’d’ the event. Then somewhere within the police leadership there was alarm, and we were called into a meeting to be told that the police can’t be seen to support anything at all, that all they would do was provide security as for any other event. Really, they’ve been great. If they have their own individual views against us, they do not express them.”
At another meeting held Thursday, the police told Simelane they were receiving “a lot of threats” from people wanting to attack Pride marchers. Simelane said he was grateful for the police’s support; together the police and Pride organizers have formulated a new route for the march that will take it away from the Mbabne’s busiest streets.
The process of organizing Pride has gone much more smoothly than Simelane had expected, he said. Lawyers were preemptively engaged, to fight any attempts to ban or obstruct Pride, but have not been needed.
There has been no officially voiced support for Pride from the king or prime minister. The only overt powerful support has come from Swaziland’s Commission on Human Rights and Public Administration Integrity, which has told Simelane that it will have a presence at the event to assure its smooth running.
“They oversee human rights here,” said Simelane. “The event is about freedom of expression, and freedom of association and assembly. They will make sure the government is put to the test and delivering. We are the people, and all people are to be given respect and dignity under the Constitution.”
Simelane commended the government for not actively trying to stop Pride, as has happened in other countries. “Ours has watched from a distance. Obviously we could do with more support, but they are just letting it happen.”
Simelane said he didn’t think the government would try to shut Pride down, and the police would only move the event on the day if they considered the attendees were under threat.
“We have never been a militant, violent country,” said Simelane. “People will call out some anti-LGBT things at me on the street, and we have heard of violent threats, but at this stage that’s not going to affect the march on the day. Some people are against us, but I literally have no fear. We want to make sure people feel safe. As well as the police, we are employing a private security firm as a second layer of security for the event.”
On Saturday, Linkages, a USAID-backed health project, has offered to ferry attendees by bus from the four regions of the country to the event.
“This is not just about celebrating our diversity but also to send the message that LGBT people are human beings, and that we are covered by all the principles enshrined in our constitution,” Simelane told The Daily Beast. “One of the rights in our constitution is a right to access public health, and it’s vital LGBT people have that. It’s vital that we are able to live with dignity.”
Simelane said Lisa Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to eSwatini, would address the event, as would a representative of the European Union. Simelane has also asked the country’s minister of health to attend.
When asked if he thought Pride would help speed up the repeal of the country’s anti-LGBT laws, Simelane said, “This is the first time the world will be hearing about the LGBT movement in Swaziland. We want the message to be clear about the need for basic human rights. We still want political reform and respect, and we see this as a first step.”
Simelane is already planning next year’s second Swaziland Pride, where he hopes to encourage larger businesses, this year nervous about supporting the inaugural event, to back the festivities.
This year he said he would be asking all the hotels booking international guests, and all the businesses selling goods at Pride, to detail what money they had made as a result of the event to show “what a boost Pride has been for the country, so the government can see we are not just a minority group but good for the economy of the country.”
Ideally, Pride would be a positive advertisement for the whole of eSwatini as somewhere to invest and visit, Simelane said.
“We can do what we can do as activists, but without financial muscle we can’t achieve anything,” Simelane said.
The first eSwatini Pride is also being backed by LGBT advocacy organizations like All Out. Matt Beard, its executive director, told The Daily Beast said it was supporting the event as part of its global crowdfunding appeal program, Grassroots Giving.
“We wanted to partner with The Rock of Hope because of the amazing initiative they was shown in coming up with a plan for Pride. This is a small country, not often on the radar of the international community and media, and we loved the audacity of the idea to run one of the very few Prides that take place across Africa here.”
Beard said he hoped the country's first Pride would first be “a precious moment of community, solidarity, support, and fun for LGBT+ people and their allies in eSwatini. For a community kept in the shadows so long by the criminalization of same-sex love, this is no small matter. Second, we hope that the visibility and power of the day will contribute to the growing strength and resilience among the Swazi LGBT+ community, enabling them to take their struggle for love, dignity, and equality to the next level.”
Simelane told The Daily Beast that he hoped Pride would transmit the message: “We are a loving community. We are open, we are one people. What happens to one person affects the next. We are all an extended family, and want to demonstrate it. We are your family, you are our family, and we are one people if we can achieve that.”
Simelane also hopes that Saturday’s event marks the moment that the wider Swazi population realizes that LGBT people are “real people. We need to put faces to this movement. The media has talked about us, and people have been afraid to come out, but this is the day we come out. I hope it will humanize the movement and help push the agenda forward. I hope it is the first step on a beautiful road we are going to embark on.”