Former Hivos employee is first openly gay black African MP

In May 2014, a former Hivos employee, South African politician and activist, Zak Mbhele made history by becoming Africa’s first black openly gay Member of Parliament.

Mbhele first came into contact with Hivos in 2007 as a student at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, when he was involved with a student group which received funding from Hivos. He went on to become a Hivos intern from January to May 2008, and a full-time staff member from June 2008 to October 2011. We spoke to him about his journey and how his work with Hivos has been a part of his work for LGBT rights in South Africa.

Tell us about your first contact with Hivos and how you went on to become a member of the team?

I was active in the LGBTI student society at Wits University called ACTIVATE, which became a member organization of the Joint Working Group (JWG), the umbrella body for LGBTI NGOs in South Africa.

Hivos was one of the funders of the JWG, and of many of its member organizations. In 2007, Hivos – through its Multi-Agency Grants Initiative (MAGI) – funded the first National LGBTI Youth Leaders’ Lekgotla, an annual workshop conference of LGBTI student societies from universities all over South Africa, which was hosted by ACTIVATE at Wits University.

My fellow Lekgotla co-organiser, Lee Mondry, and I liaised closely with the then-Hivos representative in South Africa, Jon Campbell, in managing those funds for the implementation of the project.

After we completed and submitted the funding report, Jon was impressed with our financial and project management and he offered me an internship at Hivos, which became a full-time position after 5 months.

Activist at heart. Zak Mbhele addressing an event as a Hivos employee in 2010. Photo: Lee Mondry

Were you influenced at all during your time at Hivos by its humanist values and approach to issues?

My worldview was already aligned with Hivos’ humanist values and philosophy and I shared those principles when I joined the organization, but working at Hivos did enable me to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for notions like pluralism and civic action.

What issues struck you most?

A key realization I made towards the end of my time at Hivos was about the structural way in which poverty underpins the vulnerability of most groups who were beneficiaries of our programs.

Whether it was LGBT people, farmworkers, migrants and refugees or victims of gender-based violence, I became acutely aware that rights violations had a big socio-economic dimension, i.e. human rights violations were disproportionately perpetrated in relation to people’s class position.

To put it in simplistic terms, I came to understand that the vulnerability and rights violations we were trying to address with our partners weren’t simply an LGBT, refugee or farmworker problem; they were fundamentally a problem of the poor.

That understanding led to me refine my passion for development issues into an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and politics: entrepreneurship because success in that arena gives economic empowerment to a small business owner, and politics because decisions in the political arena on policies, budgets, taxation, legislative regulation and program implementation affect the conditions/environment in which entrepreneurs operate and heavily influence whether they will struggle or flourish.

The vulnerability of a person is greatly reduced when they have disposable income that gives them consumer choice in the market and they can access the goods and services they need to meet their needs.

What do you think are the major strides that have been made in the LGBTI movement in South Africa since you were a student?

One encouraging development has been the growth in the number of LGBTI student organizations, although this is always in flux given the transitory nature of the student sector in general – people are merely ‘passing through’ from high school to adult working life. Another one is the increased recognition that the organized LGBTI sector has been able to get from the government, whether concerning HIV & AIDS policy or with the formation of the inter-ministerial task team to tackle hate crimes.