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South Africa must change its tune for LGBTI citizens

The South African constitution should be used and enforced, not changed to freeze out gay and trans citizens, says lesbian human rights campaigner Melanie Nathan
National Assembly of South Africa: MPs should promote LGBTI rights and uphold the constitution.
Photo by Kaishu Tai.

South Africa has been lauded for its all-inclusive constitution, which entrenches full equality for all, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

But a group of empowered traditionalists have launched an attack on these rights through a parliamentary constitutional review process, exacerbating and honing the homophobic reality that has escaped the South African Constitution’s quest since its inception.

When the South African Apartheid government fell, former President Nelson Mandela, led the country to a constitution with the promise of ‘never again’. Never again would South Africa discriminate against any group of person and all would have their rights fully entrenched and protected by the constitution.

However when it came to LGBTI rights the unique milieu was not ready for such an advanced constitution and so tolerance and acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and intersexed people lagged behind the law. Instead of finding a path to enlightenment to effect the synchronization, homophobia festered through years of perpetuating myth.

Now to add fuel to the fire, the Traditional Leaders, comprised of members of Parliament and tribal chieftains, nursing century old legacies, impart license to violence with their newfound parliamentary discussions to revoke equality.

The truth is that, for over 20 years, South Africa’s fully equal constitution has merely purported to protect LGBTI people from discrimination. But, citing the excuse of cultural context, it has done anything but protect gay, trans and intersex citizens from hate and harm. The ANC led South African government, with little resistance from other political parties, has failed to protect LGBTI people from the endemic brutality and violence, resulting from homophobia.

Like his predecessors, President Jacob Zuma’s government has done nothing to fight homophobia. And instead of tackling the cultural disdain, through its omission, its silence, and appointments of admitted homophobes to judiciary and ambassadorships, it may well be accused of the tacit endorsement of hate-based violence against sexual minorities.

Perhaps the recent hike in particularly brutal murders amongst lesbians, gays and transgender South Africans is no coincidence. For the past months the messaging of the Traditional Leaders against LGBT rights has been irresponsible. Member of Parliament Nkosi Patekile Holomisa, chairman of the Review Committee who is a member of the ANC, proclaimed: ‘The ANC knows that the great majority of South Africans do not want to promote or protect the rights of gays and lesbians.’

While the ANC leadership distanced itself from the remarks and has noted it does not agree with the revocation of the entrenched rights for LGBTI South Africans, absolutely no steps have been taken to change the paradigm.

What is needed:

  • Crimes committed where hate is a motivation must carry stronger sentences, through the implementation of hate crimes legislation.
  • Victims and families must receive more government support.
  • The government must embark upon a radical education campaign to counter the myth that being attracted to a member of the same-sex is un-African.
  • President Zuma should publicly call on the Traditional Leaders to scrap their discussions about stripping fellow South Africans of their constitutional rights.
  • All members of parliament who fail to uphold their oath to protect the constitution of South Africa should be reprimanded and recalled, as being unworthy of office.
  • South Africa should ensure the revocation of any counter-productive process that can take away rights.

The constitution is a critical document, which ought not be bounced around at the whim of one group and the expense of another. If the message were to change perhaps so too shall the hearts. It is time for South Africans to learn to live their awesome constitution.

Melanie Nathan is the founding director of Private Courts Inc, a mediation, LGBTI equality and human rights advocacy firm based in San Francisco. She publishes oblogdeeoblogda.me and is co-producing Gay USA: the Movie. Follow her on Twitter here.

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