Only Protected on Paper

By Richard Pithouse · 30 Mar 2011

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It’s now almost three months since David Kato, a former teacher and a leading Ugandan gay rights activist, was beaten to death in Mukono Town in Uganda.  Kato was living in Johannesburg in the salad days of our new democracy and, inspired by the progress made here in recognising the legal right of gay people to an equal humanity, he became a key figure in the Ugandan movement when he returned home in 1998. 

Homosexuality was first criminalised in Uganda in the 19th century under the British colonial occupation. That criminalisation of a mode of expressing love and desire that is part of all human communities across space and time was sustained and updated after independence in 1962. As the new century unfolded there were active attempts, often driven by senior politicians and clerics with the support of an increasingly rabid tabloid press, to create a popular moral panic about homosexuality.  Public vilification escalated and there were threats, calls for further state repression, censorship of gay people and organisations and a further tightening of a legal regime already so repressive that it carried a sentence of life imprisonment for certain forms of gay sex.

Of course the vilification of gay people by political elites was not unique to Uganda. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe’s public hostility stretched back to 1987 but reached a new level of intensity following his verbal attack on gay people at a book fair in Harare in 1996. In Namibia Sam Nujoma began a campaign of demonization in 1995, the former Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi launched his first major attack in 1999 and here in South Africa Jacob Zuma made extreme homophobic comments on Heritage Day in 2006. In the same year Olusegun Obasanjo introduced a bill that aimed to further criminalise homosexuality in Nigeria.

The sobering reality is that homosexuality is illegal for men in 29 African countries and for women in 20 African countries. But while it is essential to take this reality seriously, it is equally important to put African homophobia in a global context - homosexuality is illegal in 80 countries across the world and in many countries where there is not a repressive legal regime discrimination and harassment remain rife. In 2009 Ian Banyham, a gay man in his 60s, was beaten to death by two young women in Trafalgar Square in central London. In California the right of same sex couples to marry was affirmed in June 2008 and overturned by a right wing campaign five months later.

But we do need to take the active mobilisation of homophobic sentiment by political leaders in our region seriously. The scapegoating of vulnerable minorities is a standard tactic used by political elites to deflect attention away from their own failures and compromises. And the masculinisation of politics that usually accompanies elite driven homophobia can be used to offer ordinary men some power and status amidst the wreckage of societies that offer no real hope for a decent life to most people.

The situation in Uganda is particular serious. In 2002 two women were arrested after the tabloid newspaper Red Pepper reported, hysterically, on their wedding. Their pastor had to flee the country. Four years latter the paper published a list of the names, workplaces and other information on 45 men it claimed where homosexuals. Many of these men were threatened and harassed.

In October 2009 Ugandan MP David Bahati introduced the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill which aimed to extend the criminalization of same-sex relationships and to introduce the death penalty for certain acts, to force Ugandan citizens to report any homosexual activity within 24 hours or face three years in jail, and to authorise the Ugandan state to extradite  its citizens having same-sex relationships outside the country.

In October last year the Rolling Stone , a tabloid newspaper, published names, photographs and addresses of 100 people it claimed were gay, including David Kato, along with a call for their execution. Kato and other activists took the newspaper to court and won the case in November. The newspaper was ordered to stop outing people and to pay compensation to the plaintiffs. Two months later Kato was attacked in his home by a man who smashed a hammer into his head twice and left him dead. Former Anglican Bishop Christopher Ssenyonjo, excommunicated for his principled rejection of homophobia, officiated at a tense political funeral. There is, at the moment, no certainty about who killed Kato and why, but in view of the way in which gay people have been vilified in Uganda, and his courage in opposing this, activists fear the worst and have been calling for a serious and credible investigation.

Here in South Africa our Constitution and our law offer some of the best legal recognition of the equal humanity of gay people and other sexual minorities in the world. We also have a vibrant gay movement and many straight people of real stature, like Desmond Tutu, who take an active and principled position on this issue.

But we have a President who has made his contempt for gay people clear. He did, under some pressure, and without the appearance of much conviction, go through the motion of condemning the arrest of a gay couple in Malawi. But his silence on this issue in the region has more usually been eloquently damning. In the religious sphere he has sought to shift the centre of political gravity from the progressive churches that opposed apartheid to towards the right wing and openly homophobic agenda of Ray McCauly and the National Interfaith Leadership Council. And, incredibly, he dispatched the notoriously and crudely homophobic Jon Qwelane to Uganda as the South African ambassador. And of course Zuma is not the only homophobe amongst our political elite. In March last year the then Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, stormed out of an art exhibition at Constitutional Hill claiming that photographs of black lesbian couples by Zanele Muholi were “going against nation building.”

Muholi has documented more than 50 cases of violent hates crimes against black lesbians living in townships. Half of these women were raped and some of them killed. In 2006 Zoliswa Nkonyana was stoned to death by a mob of young men in Khayelitsha for being an “out” lesbian. Sizakele Sigasa, a lesbian activist, and her partner Salome Masooa were raped, tortured, and murdered in Meadowlands, Soweto in 2007. In the same year Thokozane Qwabe was found murdered in Ezakheni, Ladysmith and Simangele Nhlapo and her two year old daughter were raped and murdered and sixteen year old Madoe Mafubedu was raped and stabbed to death in Soweto. Eudy Simelane, who played soccer for the national side, was raped and killed in KwaThema, Springs in 2008. It is this reality and not the fact that some women find love and share desire with other women that is perverse.

Muholi’s photographs aim to “create a body of meaning that is welcomed by us as a community of queer black women” and to “ensure that those who come after us have ‘eyes to see’ the beautiful black marks of our existence and resistance.” Her work is entirely within the spirit of the Constitution. Xingwana’s comments were entirely opposed to the letter and spirit of that document which, what ever its limitations, certainly does reflect some of the aspirations to have come out of the best moments of the struggles against apartheid. But as much as it reflects some of those aspirations in principle the reality is that, as Muholi argues, in practice black lesbians are “only protected on paper.”

Legal activism is important and reaching agreements with states on commitments to human rights does sometimes offer a useful yardstick against which to measure the actions of governments and to leverage pressure against them. But the professionalization of activism after apartheid has led too many of us to accept that this should be the horizon of our commitment or that activism should be the preserve of NGO professionals. 

To have any hope of meeting the challenges of our times we need an embodied and popular practice of active, direct and practical solidarity premised on an ethic of immediate equality. We also need to develop an emancipatory vision for a society that can offer a dignified life for everyone, and a strategy to make real progress towards that vision. Right now this is not something that we can vote for. It is something that we have to work for and, when necessary, fight for, where we live, work, play and pray.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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29 Mar

Thank You Richard

Thank you for writing this. It is, as your writing always is, moving and powerful.

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