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Students rising

Semakaleng ‘Sma’ Motapho is project coordinator in the higher education men who have sex with men (MSM) combination prevention programme at the University of Venda. The campus, known as Uni-Ven, is in Thohoyandou in Limpopo, the centre of the Vhembe district and an area known for its conservativism and patriarchal attitudes. Being out and running a LGBTI-friendly programme in this environment is extremely challenging. But 27-year-old Sma has made the programme an expression of himself.

Sma is openly gay and cross-dresses but doesn’t identify as a woman. “I’m just more comfortable in ‘female’ clothes,” he explains. “I’m just Sma”. He began his role at Uni-Ven timidly. He explains that homosexuality is regarded as ‘matula’ (taboo). “It’s going against the culture,” he says. “In the beginning, it was very hard. I experienced a lot of red tape from every direction.”

“Being openly gay and dressing like me creates an immediate barrier here,” Sma explains. “People found it problematic to be seen with me.” But the LGBTI support group that Sma runs has grown and now has over twenty people attending.

“They didn’t have a space on campus to be who they were. It was an area that nobody wanted to entertain. It was a no-go area.”

“I can see momentum and progress but it needs to continue,” says Sma.

Sma believes that one of the most important factors in making services accessible to key population groups like MSM lies in the language used by institutions. “Prevention messages about HIV shouldn’t revolve around women and men. The commentary and the narrative is very heteronormative. We have to speak about the crossover.” He cites University application forms as an example, “It creates barriers by putting people into boxes.”

Uni-Ven runs a successful HIV testing programme but one of the difficulties that Sma faces in coordinating the MSM community within a conservative space is simply that MSM students don’t disclose that information easily and students can be hostile.

“I do what I have to do. Sometimes, I’ve wanted to leave, but my conscience won’t let me. I am needed here. I’m saving lives.”

The University fully supports Sma’s work and there have been anti-homophobia drives on campus with an article in the University of Venda magazine about embracing homosexuality. But there is still a long way to go, “Sometimes I think that if I leave here, it will be back to square one”.

“It’s been a journey for me… I realised that I was different when I was about six years old. My mom didn’t want to buy me dresses and my dad didn’t want me to put on makeup. But I did. At school I also realised I was different. Boys wouldn’t accept me and neither would girls. When I reached puberty, I told myself that I needed to stop. I observed men and I tried to mimic them. I tried to get rid of this hand gesture!” he laughs, nodding towards his effeminately gesturing right hand.

He started smoking, drinking, and dating women. “My goal was to impregnate a woman. I wouldn’t use condoms,” he thought that this would give him credibility as a man. He became more and more unhappy. “I was trying to be somebody that I wasn’t. But my hand still did this”. Sma tried to kill himself in 2005 and again four years later.

“Then I realised that I was missing something. It was me”.

Coming out was a slow process but his family was understanding. “We don’t have control over things. I can’t change! It wasn’t a choice. You wouldn’t choose discrimination, nobody would. This programme has really helped me to understand myself more.” Sma acknowledges that it’s unusual in this community to have such a supportive family, “I’ve been blessed to have these people.”

Sma is a rare student at Uni-Ven. “I’m the only obvious gay here,” he observes. People stop and stare and talk about him loudly. He brushes it off: “I choose to not hear it and I’m not going to sit in my office and cry.”

“You need to be resilient. You have to stand your ground. You have to be strong, as emotionally strong as possible because you see things and understand things that people don’t get.”


Men who have sex with men (MSM) are more at risk of HIV transmission and Higher Education Institutions (HEI) are known for experimental, unprotected and risky sex. However, many MSM operate under the radar, with a large cross-over between heterosexual vaginal and anal sex and same-sex anal sex – often with concurrent sexual partners. This occurs against a backdrop of institutional stigma and discrimination and a lack of integrated sexual health services. NACOSA’s MSM/LGBTI Higher Education programme – the first of its kind in South Africa – was funded by the Global Fund and aimed to contribute to the knowledge about student men who have sex; reduce risk-taking same-sex sexual behaviour; increase access to sexual health and HIV testing; and create an enabling environment to challenge structural and institutional barriers. A Writing Retreat with programme participants will document the learnings from this programme to support future programming for MSM and LGBTI students. The outputs from the workshop will be published later this year.

For further information about the MSM programme, contact NACOSA’s programme specialist: Marlow Newman-Valentine

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