In Other Words

Africa’s Rainbow Nation

Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2002, London "Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society," once declared Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma. In the same vein, Zimbabwe’s head of state Robert Mugabe has likened homosexuals to dogs and pigs. With neighbors like these, how did South Africa become one of ...

Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2002, London

"Homosexuals must be condemned and rejected in our society," once declared Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma. In the same vein, Zimbabwe’s head of state Robert Mugabe has likened homosexuals to dogs and pigs. With neighbors like these, how did South Africa become one of the most gay-friendly nations in the world?

The unique history of South African gay liberation is the subject of a recent article in the quarterly Journal of Southern African Studies. Sheila Croucher, a political scientist from Miami University in Ohio, argues that the emergence of a gay and lesbian movement in South Africa is "both a consequence of, and potential contributor to, the country’s democratic transition."

Before the 1980s, Croucher explains, a gay-rights movement barely existed in South Africa. The lone outburst occurred in 1968, when gay men and lesbians rallied successfully against a government effort to criminalize homosexuality. However, mass political action did not result, mainly because this particular movement — known as Law Reform — was too narrow in focus and failed to link its goals to a broader opposition to apartheid.

South Africa’s first national gay organization, the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA), came onto the scene in 1982. Primarily a social organization, as most of the country’s gay subculture was at the time, gasa was also predominantly white, middle class, and male. The group, whose mission was to provide a "non-militant non-political answer to gay needs," refrained from debating the country’s political structure and refused to aid one of its black members on trial for his role in the antiapartheid struggle. In 1987, the Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association expelled GASA on the grounds that it only represented white homosexuals. Croucher asserts that this expulsion destroyed the group, but gay activist and South African author Mark Gevisser maintains that GASA began falling apart due to internal problems in 1986, when membership dwindled and the organization suffered financial troubles.

Croucher’s narrative omits a key development that helped propel the movement forward: In 1985, the government again contemplated outlawing homosexuality; as in 1968, the gay community swung into action. But this time, the idea of a larger struggle took root, with help from a speech by human rights advocate Edwin Cameron, who linked gay rights with broader notions of freedom. The government’s efforts later fizzled as authorities were forced to confront antiapartheid resistance. But Cameron’s speech and leadership helped transform gay rights into a legitimate political issue rather than merely a private concern.

In the late 1980s, new groups sprang up that included black and white members, displaying what Croucher terms "impeccable anti-apartheid credentials." These groups were the first to meld gay rights issues formally to the antiapartheid struggle and the larger fight for human rights. They allied with the United Democratic Front, an umbrella organization aligned with the underground African National Congress (ANC), which opposed the apartheid government.

By 1990, the government lifted the ban on the ANC and began to dismantle the apartheid system. Under the leadership of anc President Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk, political organizations from around the country came together in 1991 to write an interim constitution. Activists from the gay movement now had the ear of ANC leaders, and in 1992, the ANC recognized gay rights and agreed to include a prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation in its proposed Bill of Rights. Other political parties followed the ANC’s lead. The interim constitution, which came into effect in 1994 when the country had its first all-race democratic elections, was the first in the world to include such a prohibition. And the Constitutional Assembly, charged with drafting the final constitution, retained the sexual orientation clause, which the new parliament approved on May 8, 1996.

Since then, gay activists have continued lobbying for equal rights, mainly in the courts and in parliament. Croucher maintains that the gay movement, primarily through the Lesbian & Gay Equality Project, an umbrella group formed in 1994, has played a key role in South African civil society, staking out independent positions and showing its willingness to challenge the anc and other political parties. Gay activists have also supported the work of other nongovernmental organizations by lobbying for gender equality and fair labor laws. By using the country’s new democratic institutions and laws to challenge the government, argues Croucher, the gay movement has helped to solidify democratic rule in South Africa.

But its work is not done. Though South Africa’s highest court overturned laws prohibiting gay adoption in September of last year, the Pretoria High Court later dismissed an application by a lesbian couple who sought legal recognition for their relationship. The court, however, made no finding on same-sex marriages in general, leaving open the possibility for new cases to be filed in the future.

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