Joan Thabeng

National Arts Festival, Makhanda, 2018

Tribute by Phodiso Aphane


I would love South Africans or African people to remember Joan as a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful transgender woman, who was living her life with no limit. She was a God-fearing man… She liked to celebrate life, and other people’s lives, because she knew that life was worth celebrating, because she lived her life with no limits. Joan was a very, very special person, a good-hearted person, who normally sympathised with others…always willing to give others a second chance. I would classify her under God, as a Goddess, you would keep her in your family. 

Joan’s passing was a shock to us, because we didn’t understand why. It was the first hate-crime in our community. We wanted answers. We wanted to know the reason why? Because we knew the perpetrator, we knew the person who did it, but the reasons, I will never know, but the man I am talking about is still walking free today in the streets, the man who has been living as a rapist all his life…he is even known by the name in our culture of one who rapes other men, women and children: mantanyola. It means one who is dangerous… And he is still in our community, because of the police not serving us, as they should. 

We used to call her ‘mama’, because each and everything we needed, she knew. Remember, we’re talking about a gay man – she knew when it was time for each one of the girls to have their period, and she always made certain that they had toiletries, so she was a very special, special person. She fitted everywhere, from father-figure to mother-figure. So it’s very difficult for us to accept that Joan is gone, and it’s not going to be easy when we see the perpetrator’s family, because it makes us think of revenge; but because we fear God, and because we do not want to remember Joan that way. Joan was like a flower to us, we couldn’t go back and kill in her name. She was even scared of her own blood, if we kill this person, her soul will not be set free. We are deeply hurt, and I am deeply cut, I don’t want to tell you lies… After I lost my mother, I never felt such pain, but I think the loss of Joan has been worse than my mother, because I didn’t know my mother that well. Joan was part of my gay life, and for me, identifying as a polygamous lesbian male, this was so important… 

I don’t know if I could talk about her death, but if you allowed me, I could talk about how we found Joan on the street? Half naked, her clothes were torn; cell phone, wallet and keys were stolen. It looked like a car accident, because she was covered in dirt. You could see that the person who killed her rolled her body over and over again in the soil to make it look as though she had been hit by a car. Joan wasn’t hit by a car, she’d been strangled and thrown out into the street. At 4am in the morning people started to run and shout, ‘A gay man has been found dead!’ You know, the painful part is that I’d seen her just the day before – we were together at a wedding. The next I heard she was dead. 

The way we found her has deeply traumatised her mother. Whenever she sees a lesbian or gay person, she cries. She often calls me and says, “I dream about her walking back into the house, but then I realise that she is never coming back. They took my baby away. Why didn’t they leave her to breathe for me?”. Joan was a mother figure to everybody, to the community, to us, and to the family… When it hit the paper, “Joan Thabeng Killed”, I was still in denial about her death, even though I was present when the coroner picked up her body. Even after we’d travelled to her hometown, and performed the ceremony and rituals, I still did not believe that Joan was dead. After my mom, it was another pain…

The pain of losing someone like that is not easy to recover from. 


Phodiso Aphane, March 2018