Catherine St Jude Pretorius

For a woman with such feminine features Catherine St Jude Pretorius makes a surprisingly convincing man.

She jams a baseball cap over her long dreads, hides her petite frame beneath a baggy T-shirt and waistcoat and slings a heavy silver chain around her neck. A pair of bling rapper sunglasses disguises the most striking features of her face, her laughing, almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones. Suddenly St Jude is transformed into St Dude, a Lil Wayne-inspired faux gangster rapper and, probably, Cape Town’s first drag king.

It’s Friday night and time for her regular performance at Bubbles Bar in Green Point, usually the preserve of drag acts of the stiletto and fishnet stockings variety. One such queen, her blonde hair teased back and purple eye shadow glittering, introduces Pretorius’s male alter ego on stage, pausing over the words “drag king” as if savouring their novelty. The bass-heavy backtrack starts and Pretorius is off, dropping rapid rhymes and punching the air as if she’s been doing this for years instead of barely six months.

A few hours earlier she had been the picture of femininity, cuddling a little girl on her lap in a Khayelitsha care centre as she read to a group of children in broken isiXhosa, a language she picked up in bits and pieces from her cousins.

“I identify as gender queer, which means that I don’t feel like I fall into the binary of male and female,” Pretorius tells me. “So St Dude is important to me, because I feel I can explore my masculinity.”

What began as something of a challenge on a blog asking why Cape Town had no drag kings has turned Pretorius into a popular local figure. A week or two after reading the blog she downloaded a few backtracks, wrote her own mock-misogynistic lyrics and performed in her first drag show. A long-time rap fan — “She listens to it all day,” her girlfriend tells me — she found a way to reconcile her drag king persona with her feminist beliefs.

At just 22 Pretorius has remarkable drive and passion. Besides her drag act and attendant drag troupe she helps to coordinate events for her friend Lara Aucamp’s organisation, Cape Town Lesbians (CTL), pens a popular blog — writing seriously and humorously on gender and queer issues — and works at the Ebenezer Educare Centre for children in Khayelitsha, which she is trying to get accredited with government as an early childhood development centre to help it to access funds and training support more effectively.

“I’m a human rights activist first,” she tells me as we drive over the grey stretch of Cape Town’s N2 highway toward the township care centre. “I respond to whatever needs I can.” And that was the origin of her drag troupe: when she saw how rapidly she gained popularity she realised that other women battling with gender roles could do with the same sort of catharsis. She is also hoping to start a support group for bursary students, a response to her recognition that there is nobody helping them to deal with their day-to-day challenges. As a former bursary student from a working-class background, she’s well placed to do this.

“No one tracked me at university. It could have gone wrong,” she says. And she wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to others. “I see myself as a bridge,” says Pretorius, a phrase she repeats several times during our time together and which emerges clearly in all her roles. She has positioned herself to play a powerful connecting role in various complex situations.

Growing up in a mixed-race family — her parents fell into the apartheid race categories of black and coloured — Pretorius faced prejudice in Matroosfontein, the “coloured area” in Cape Town where she grew up. “We got called the k-word a lot,” she says.

Then she was sent to a mostly white school and went on to the University of Cape Town, where she studied politics and public policy. After an incident in which racist accusations were levelled at CTL, Pretorius set out to bridge the race and class divide in the city’s gay community, organising free events that are held during the day in order to attract more people.

When she started working at the care centre in Khayelitsha she discovered the children’s caregivers watched soap operas all day, forcing the children to do the same. She started gently introducing better practices, being careful to avoid coming across as disrespectful.

“I feel if I do things a certain way it may inspire them to change,” she says. She’s noticed the difference: the women no longer throw away the children’s art or brush them off when they speak and the soap operas have been replaced with educational programmes. She also acts as a bridge between the high-level donors and management that fund the NGO and those on the ground doing the work.

Her pragmatic approach characterises much of what she does, and her talent for gathering people around her, for being a natural connecter and her can-do attitude when faced with a need speaks more loudly than any activist jargon.

“You need someone who can be the social glue that sticks everyone together and Catherine is very good at that,” says Aucamp, who credits her friend with keeping CTL going when she was at a low point after the accusations of racism. “She’s good at making people feel at ease.”

Pretorius’s devoutly Catholic parents struggled when she came out as a lesbian at 15, but they were very supportive, as are her four brothers. “They love me very much,” she says simply. And it is this simplicity, and a disarming humility, that makes her particularly endearing. There is no chip on her shoulder about her identity or struggles, merely an infectious passion and joy in engaging with others and the world around her. Her sparkling eyes light up when she talks and her face is almost always wreathed in a gap-toothed smile.

Her particular interests are women, children and education and she hopes to have her own NGO working in those areas by the time she’s 30. “But first I want to learn from others.” Given her success rate at achieving her goals it won’t be hard.

She didn’t let her lack of formal training or experience stand in the way of starting to rap, wading through red tape to get the care centre accredited or even reading in isiXhosa to a group of children.

“That’s the thing that I love about Catherine,” says Aucamp. “She realises she can do just about anything. A lot of those things are accessible to anyone but they just don’t bother doing them. Catherine, because she’s so passionate and because she realises you can do anything you set your mind to, just does it. She won’t say: ‘Oh, I think it’ll be nice to become a drag king rapper’, she goes out there and does it. When I see Catherine being able to do things I stop and think: actually, I can do them too.”

Pretorius has one simple reason for what she does. “I believe everyone has a responsibility to help other people. I believe that’s the point of life. That’s why I have ‘channel of peace’ tattooed on my arm. It’s my mantra; my life motto.”

— Verashni Pillay