root - February 15, 2023

Peter Luhanga 

A sunset walk on the beach is how Phumzile Sithebe and Vuyokazi Mehlwana plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The couple, who are both in their forties, say they will still be together in their eighties. 

But finding love has not been an easy path. Sithebe had two children when she moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town in 2012, and had never felt attracted to other women. That changed when she started work at a retailer in Cape Town and met Mehlwana, who was her co-worker.

“It was love at first sight,” said Sithebe, who until that point had considered herself heterosexual.

Sithebe said she was so attracted to Mehlwana she would go to work early so she could spend more time near her. 

“I was scared, I’d never dated a woman,” said Sithebe, who was so confused about her feelings for another woman that she considered approaching the church for help. 

Then there was a farewell party for a manager at work where a hug in greeting led to Sithebe and Mehlwana’s first kiss. 

After the party, she says they spoke on the telephone into the night.

“We started dating. I’d lie to my aunty in Parklands that I was going for training at work but I was going to Dunoon (where Mehlwana lived). It was like my first love.”

But with the stigma attached to lesbianism, along with violent attacks on lesbian couples, Sithebe and Mehlwana hid their relationship. She said she even took a trip with Mehlwana to meet her parents in Johannesburg, and they told her parents they were simply friends. 

“I didn’t know what they would think if I had introduced her as my love, I thought maybe they would chase me away or be rude to her because all the time I was straight [heterosexual]”.

She says she was raised by her grandmother and when she found out, she was shocked.

“She called me to say are you serious? Is this the kind of life you want to live? But they see now I am happier and more responsible,” said Sithebe. 

“Vuyo [Vuyokazi] has shown me the other side of love which I’ve never experienced with a man. Small things matter. She would surprise me with flowers, teddy bears, she would send people to bring me food when I was off at work without me even knowing, she bought small cards and wrote messages… like things we see in the movies.”

Once they made their relationship known to the family, Mehlwana paid lobola for her and her children.

“My kids are very crazy over Vuyo and she loves them too.”

She said although lesbians have been attacked and murdered in places such as Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, and Lower Crossroads, people in Dunoon accepted them. 

Mehlwana says she wished she had met Sithebe earlier in her life.

“When I met Phumzile I realised that love exists. I’ve achieved a lot ever since I met her. If I met her earlier, I’d have been very far. I was not responsible before I met her, I am responsible now.”

Mehlwana said when she was young she was a tomboy, but as a child struggled to understand why she was attracted to women as she was raised with traditional patriarchal values. 

While very much in love, the couple say they do have their arguments and disagreements. Sometimes they might not speak to each other for days but they always communicate in the end. “What keeps us going is love, openness and honesty,” said Sithebe, as Mehlwana agreed.“Our love still has a sparkle, it’s like we just met,” says Sithebe

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