If Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill becomes law, it will be little short of state-sponsored "genocide" against the gay community. So, the ambassadorial appointment of Jon Qwelane, well-know for his homophobic and derogatory statements against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and intersex (LGBTI) community, was a shock to human rights and gay activists. However, given the usual acceptance of homophobia in South Africa, and all over Africa, perhaps this disregard for human rights should not come as a surprise at all.
The Joint Working Group (JWG), a network of LGBTI organisations in South Africa, are deeply disturbed by the appointment. "The anti-homosexuality bill currently under discussion in that country is an entirely oppressive piece of legislation, not only does it seek to impose draconian punishments on people found guilty of homosexuality but it attempts to punish people who fail to report on homosexuals and activists working in the field of LGBTI rights among others."
In a July 2008 article in South Africa's Sunday Sun entitled "Call Me Names, but Gay Is Not Ok," Qwelane, among other things, expressed support for Robert Mugabe's brutal and oppressive treatment of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe. Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe received nearly 1,000 complaints, and subsequently ruled that the article had contravened the press code. There remains an open investigation and pending charges against Qwelane for hate speech at the South African Human Rights Commission.
In a 2006 Article published by Media24, Qwelane, referring to his reaction if one of his children were gay, wrote, "And a big YES, I would condemn and disown them if they turned out to be homosexuals."
The Ugandan bill, which recommends the death penalty for anyone repeatedly convicted of having gay sex and prison sentences for those who fail to report homosexual activity to the police, would breed violence and intolerance through all levels of society.
The bill says that parents of homosexual children, and that pastors and counsellors who extend spiritual guidance and psycho-social support to homosexuals, will be regarded as "accomplices" in promoting and abetting homosexuality if they don't report them to police - now that's taking the law way too far!
World leaders and human rights groups have condemned the bill, fearing it will trigger increased violence against the gay community, hinder the country's fight against HIV/AIDS among the gay community, and undermine freedom of expression and association. Numerous attempts to contact the Department of International Relations and Cooperation's spokesman, Saul Kgomotso Molobi, for comment proved unsuccessful.
The proposed appointment of Qwelane seems to endorse Uganda's persecution of gays. President Zuma should be lobbying Uganda to drop plans to execute gays, but instead he appears to be ready to appoint a man whose record for promoting intolerance, homophobia and prejudice in South Africa is well established and largely unparalleled.
I believe the reason why the hate campaign against LGBT continues is that most of those connected to state power are born-again, rigid, fundamentalist, revivalist Christians. They bring to the public policy process and the management of state affairs, their religious bigotry that they pass off as public morality and ethics. Christianity needs to get back to serving the marginalised and out of the business of attempting to control others' sexual orientation.
A Nigerian blogger Anengiyefa thinks the bill is flawed and the panel who made the bill are ignorant about homosexuality. He says homosexuality cannot be an offense, "you cannot punish someone for having sexual feelings for another person." He contends that you cannot prove "homosexuality" in a court of law to the standard of proof that is required in a criminal court.
Yet, there's a wave of homophobic incidents across Africa. Governments are laying down the law against homosexuality, 38 out of 53 countries have criminalised consensual gay sex, in what Human Rights Watch says is a method of "political manipulation."
In Malawi, where discussing sex is taboo, an attempted marriage by a gay couple was labelled a matter of "gross indecency." A judge is expected to decide next week whether they will face trial.
In Nigeria, northern Muslim states have the death penalty for homosexuality, while anti-gay incidents have flared in Senegal, where bodies of gay men have been exhumed and tossed out of Muslim cemeteries.
Scott Long, Human Rights Watch director for gay issues, says anti-gay sentiment in Africa soared about 15 years ago when Mugabe started "manipulating the issue for political gain." Mugabe, who has called gays "worse than dogs and pigs," latched onto the issue to distract attention from economic and political crises and rally political support.
Even here in liberal South Africa, legal protection has not made way for social acceptance. South Africa's post-apartheid constitution ensures equal rights for gays, but the recognition of same-sex marriage in 2006 followed months of heated protests by both the gay community and thousands of opponents. LGBTI people are often disowned by families. Black lesbian women face rape and battering in their neighbourhoods in a bid to "cure" them.
While South Africa now has a prominent gay judge on its Constitutional Court, not so long ago in 2006 Zuma was pressed into apologising for saying hat same-sex marriages were "a disgrace to the nation and to God." According to Dawie Nel, director of OUT, a gay-rights group, South Africa is "not necessarily more advanced than the rest of Africa," adding that South Africa is "still a very homophobic society."
Racism, heterosexism, misogyny and xenophobia are still invading our lives and shaping our world. Everyone should shout foul as loud as we can and not keep quiet the proposed Ugandan bill and the mute appointment of Qwelane. Sending out into the world a representative with such a questionable human rights record is surely a signal of just how far the country has to go.
Oliver Meth is based at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Centre for Civil Society. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.Files to download: