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The covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the lopsided impact of the crisis on LGBT people in South Africa

Nkosinathi Zwane (pictured centre) narrates how covid-19 measures have affected his dignity as a gay worker.
Every community is affected by the covid-19 pandemic. For LGBT people, the impact can be disproportionate. Nosipho Twala spoke with Nkosinathi Zwane (36) about how the covid-19 pandemic has affected his life. Nathi, as we fondly call him, participated in our Letsema Project, a multi-year initiative for addressing gender-based violence in the Vaal in Gauteng Province. In this story, Nathi narrates how the covid-19 crisis has affected his dignity as a gay worker.


The Covid-19 lockdown measures have made me emotionally exhausted. Emotional exhaustion, according to the experts, is caused by stress. People with emotional exhaustion often feel powerless, stuck or trapped in their situation.


The pandemic and subsequent lockdown ruined my small baking business based in Mohlakeng in Randfontein, and now I am powerless, stuck and trapped. The first positive case in South Africa was officially reported on 5 March 2020, around the same time that I began the process of formally registering my business. 


The registration of my informal small business is a milestone for growth. My clientele was expanding. I was doing at least five big cake orders per month and selling sweet treats from my house. The pandemic unfolded as we approached Easter, which is one of the peak seasons for my business. Church groups particularly place big orders for various Easter celebrations and conventions. This year the orders didn't come.


I refunded the deposits for three orders of birthday cake after my clients cancelled parties because of the lockdown. They complained bitterly about the 10% penalty fee for cancelling, saying it wasn't their fault. They didn't understand that this is a challenge for me, too. I charged the penalty fee to cover the cost of the ingredients, which I buy in bulk in Johannesburg, some 40 minutes' drive from Randfontein. 


I have a deposit for an order of a wedding cake, which I can't bake because the bride has pushed the wedding to September. Having this deposit worries me. What if the wedding can't happen in September due to the covid pandemic? Will my client demand for the deposit? Will I have it? 


I don't bother to bake the sweet treats since the government ordered traders to stop selling food. People would not want to come to my house to buy my beloved scones. Besides, the township shop doesn't sell some of the ingredients I need. Even if I could somehow travel to Johannesburg, it'd be a wasted trip because my suppliers closed shop.


I am broke, idle and emotionally drained. The final blow, the thing that almost broke my spirit, was my experience applying for covid-19 SMME relief funding


I was number 130 in the phone queue the first time I called to apply for the relief promised to small businesses by the government. I waited for my turn for one hour only to learn that my business doesn't qualify for immediate help because the priority is given to the registered businesses. The person told me to call after two weeks. I phoned to follow-up after a fortnight as advised, but my airtime got finished before I could get assisted. I was caller number 98. 


I can't apply online because I don't have enough data. When I tried to use the online platform it was very slow to connect and I exhausted the little data I had. Perhaps the online system is excruciatingly slow because there are too many people trying to access.  

I hoped to work hard and recoup after the lockdown ended on 17 April, but the President announced an extension. So, I went to our ward councillor and registered to receive food parcels. I have been in the queue for food for the past two weeks, waiting in vain to hear someone call out my name. We queue for hours every day but leave empty-handed and discouraged. If they call my name and I get the food I will share it with other people. But I am not hopeful that they will call me. Will they consider me, a single and gay man? I fear that I will be overlooked in favour of the many other hungry older people and families. 


The impact of any crisis on LGBTI people is often lopsided due to pre-existing vulnerabilitiesThe same is true now as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the protections in our constitution and labour laws, many LGBTI workers still experience discrimination, harassment and violence. I am a living testimony that our workplaces aren't free of homophobia. 

I lost my store manager job at a household goods outlet in Roodepoort partly due to the homophobic tendencies of a supervisor. Perhaps if I had belonged to a trade union I wouldn't have lost the case at CCMA. Perhaps if I had received emotional support I would have been motivated to fight. One good thing emerged from that dubious affair; my passion for baking flourished and I started a business. I wanted to bring my dignity back with the baking business. The baking business built confidence in me to be productive and to make a contribution to my community as a respected and accepted member. 

But now the humiliation I felt when I lost my job is rearing its ugly head. My hard work has been destroyed and at an avalanche speed. I get despondent every time someone knocks on my door looking to buy scones. I won't bake without the proper ingredients for the sake of money only. I can't compromise the quality of my work and risk losing my customers. I recently got some orders for November, but I can't dare get excited because I don't know what lies beyond covid-19. 


Not so long ago I was a happy chappie. I worked hard and volunteered at the schools in my township, teaching children drum majorettes, which I am very good at. I am a member of a local church that respects my sexuality and they appointed me to a leadership position. I accepted the position and promised to serve with commitment, as long as they won't say I need to get a wife to support me in this role. 


After many years of struggling to get my community to accept me (read my story titled 'Coming out of the closet', on page 94 here) I am seeing myself more as a gay man than a community member. What will happen to me? Will I end up begging to survive? Can I re-build a pandemic-proof business? Only time will tell. 

Story editor: Nelly Nyagah

Picture credit: Supplied by Nkosinathi Zwane

This interview was conducted by Nosipho Twala, Educator and Facilitator at the Labour Research Service. Nosipho leads our LGBTI Workplace Rights Project, which is made possible through the support of The Other Foundation

Know more about our work supporting trade unions to create inclusive and safe spaces where LGBT and other vulnerable groups of workers feel free to claim and exercise their rights.


Covid-19: Implications for retail sector 

Double Lockdown: How do we slow the spread of Covid-19 without shutting down the livelihoods of poor households? 

Covid-19 is locking down livelihoods 

Covid-19: Implications for small-scale fishers 

Covid-19: Implications for waste reclaimers 

Covid-19: Implications for informal sector workers 

Covid-19: Implications for domestic workers 

LGBTI workers: Know your rights and responsibilities