Under Priscilla’s eyes: state violence against South Africa’s queer community during and after apartheid

Keywords: State violence, Athi-Patra Ruga, queer, Johannesburg Central Police Station, John Vorster Square, South African Police Force, South African Police Service, photography


Using South African performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga’s ...the Naïveté of Beiruth (2008) photographic series as its genesis, this article employs critical approaches to semiotics and textual analysis to examine the history of police brutality in South Africa with a focus on the experiences of the queer community both under apartheid and after the transition to democracy – a history that repeatedly doubles back to the former-South African Police Force headquarters: John Vorster Square/Johannesburg Central Police Station. For queer subjects, South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994 brought with it many significant de jure changes to the daily lived reality of life in South Africa. However, misconduct and violence at the hands of the police – referred to as ‘Priscilla’ in the gay South African argot, Gayle – continues under democracy albeit of a divergent nature. Through Ruga’s radical aesthetic and disruptive artistic intervention with the Johannesburg Central Police Station – a site which has deeply penetrated South Africa’s cultural imaginary – this paper examines state violence against those who are identified as queer to expose the limits of the Rainbow Nation project, question the transformation of the South African police, and serve as an unsettling reminder of the complex and often dangerous societal position of women and queer subjects in South Africa. Significantly, while predominantly phenomenological in nature, this article to also partly auto-ethnographic as I draw from my own experience as a queer subject born in apartheid-era

State violence

Johannesburg and living in democratic South Africa.