Constructing a Skesana Identity

It was previously suggested that, in particular, African “gay" men who identify as skesanas make usage of isiNgqumo (Rudwick & Ntuli 2008; Ntuli 2009) and that it is they who identify most strongly with the linguistic variety. The etymology of the term skesana, and the social construct associated with it, arguably have their roots in the early and mid-nineteenth-century mine environment.

South African mines were based on the migrant labor market, and minework- ers were away from their wives and families for many months throughout the year in what was a predominantly male-dominated environment. Ntuli (2009) also traces the etymology of the term skesana to the mine environment. He writes that “if a gay boy or man [at the mines] called himself a skesana it meant that he was the wife or the submissive lover in the relationship and he should be with the other skesanas in their section of the sheebeen” (68).10 In their seminal piece, Moodie, Ndatshe, & Sibuyi (1988) describe same-sex acts in the South African mines as heteronormative in a sense that the “boy-wives” of otherwise “straight” mineworkers took on the social and sexual role women would in a heterosexual relationship, with others even expected to dress in women’s attires to please their “husbands” (Murray, 2000; Epprecht, 2013).11 Gunkel (2010) similarly, suggests that miners who engaged in same-sex relationships could maintain their heterosexual identity by considering skesanas and izinkotshane (“boy-wives”) as women rather than men. Although in the post-apartheid state “gay” life offers alternatives to “traditional” and dominant femininities and masculinities, South Africans in same-sex relationships often do not challenge these hegemonic structures (Potgieter 2006).

In an influential work on African sexuality, a skesana has been defined as a young man who “likes to be fucked” (McLean & Ngcobo 1995: 164), in other words, a man who desires the kind of sex with a man where he engages in the “passive” role only. The African men who call themselves skesanas are, by and large, feminine and effeminate and tend to be quite visibly “gay” in South Africa. Skesanas have further been described as desiring “masculine men who could be considered “accidental homosexuals,” because they have sex with men whom they believe to be intersex or someone who pretends to be “female” (McLean & Ngcobo 1995: 166).12 Some skesanas see themselves as women (Reddy & Louw 2002; Ntuli 2009; Rudwick 2010; Msibi 2013a), and others as “gay” men (McLean & Ngcobo 1995). This was the case for our participants, including Lebo, Sky, and Blessing.

While it is generally not uncommon for South African black men who desire same-sex engagements to be intimate with men whom they consider to be “straight,” the case of the skesanas (and other similar identifications such as “ladies, discussed later) has its roots in a thoroughly heteronormative Weltanschauung (worldview). McLean & Ngcobo (1995) aptly quote one of their informants saying “My male lover is not gay, he is just heterosexual. I am always the woman in a relationship” (166). Several of our interviews echoed similar statements. When skesanas make use of the adjective “straight” in reference to their partners, this not only encapsulates sexual behavior but also appearances that are stereotypically masculine and behavioral notions such as toughness (Reddy & Louw 2002). To have sex with such men represents a significant conquest for some skesanas. Importantly, African men who engage in same-sex relations and identify as skesana rarely date each other or are sexually intimate with each other, and in the rare cases where this does occur, the act is not considered “sex" even if it results in an orgasm (McLean & Ngcobo 1995).

Our fieldwork suggests that skesana-identified men often form close friendships to the extent that they may love each other on a platonic level, but because many of them think of themselves as women, they would not be with another skesana as this would be tantamount to a lesbian relationship.13 Due to their heteronormative perspective, many skesanas also report finding lesbians “strange” because they are with a person who has the same gender identity. What is crucial is that all the interviewees who explicitly identified as skesana viewed their femininity as naturally given and thought it to be “unnatural” that two men-men would have sex or an intimate relationship with each other. Skesanas, due to their affiliation with traditional Zulu femininity, show submissiveness to their male partners, just as women do in many African heterosexual relationships. It has been argued that skesanas, as the “female” partners, “may be subject to the demands of their partners” just as women are in many heterosexual relationships (Reddy & Louw 2002: 91). It is this unequal power relation which often also leads skesanas to adopt hlonipha toward their partners, which in many cases includes serving their partner on the domestic level.

The identity as a skesana is by no means fixed, rather, as has been noted in several works, such identities may take on particular, localized, and idiosyncratic meanings. For instance, Reid (2006, 2013) has shown how “gay” identities can emerge and be practiced in other South African contexts. Reid introduces readers to “ladies,” who are skesana equivalents in Ermelo, a small town in another province in South Africa. These are effeminate men who maintain female social and sexual roles, and ideally get sexually involved with “gents” (“straight” men known for or suspected of being available as sexual partners to homosexual men) and injongas. The ladies often use so-called jolly-talk, a gay linguistic variety equivalent to isiNgqumo, to communicate. Like the skesanas, ladies see their sexual identifications as closely intertwined with their gender identities; they perceive themselves as women and expect to be treated like women in their relationships with other men.

There may also be some parallels in the construction of skesana identities and the Israeli oxtsa (Levon 2012), who are described as “young, effeminate gay men [. . .], who are physically slight, wear makeup and the latest designer clothing, and are obligatorily passive during sex” [emphasis added] (189). Importantly, however, in Levon’s (2012) study it is argued that most gay men in Israel are not using oxtsit as a means to express an alternative, oxtsa identity but, rather, that they just make use of unsystematic use of oxtsit words in conversation without self-identifying as an oxtsa. This is in stark contrast to our study. The participants in our study openly identify as skesana and isiNgqumo is an important aspect of the gay subgroup of skesanas examined here. This is not to say that all isiNgqumo-speakers are skesanas or that all skesanas speak isiNgqumo, but it is safe to argue that South African gay men who identify as skesana know and speak, to some degree, the linguistic variety. While the speaking of isiNgqumo is not the sole marker of a skesana identity, it is a salient one. The vocabulary of isiNgqumo may also be far more extensive than other “gay” varieties examined in the literature. In fact, one of our interviewees claimed that isiNgqumo has well over 1,000 words; others said that it is a full-blown language, with others demanding for it to acquire the status of the twelfth official language in South Africa (see also Rudwick & Ntuli 2008).14

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