South Africa’s former Deputy President Jacob Zuma has apologise for offending the gay community and explained that his comments describing same sex marriage as “a disgrace” were misinterpreted.

Zuma, who is fighting for his political life after being fired over a corruption scandal last year, angered activists after a local newspaper quoted him calling plans to legalise same-sex marriages a “disgrace to the nation and to God.”

South African lawmakers are currently drafting laws that will make South Africa the first country in Africa to allow gay unions-a move strongly opposed in the mostly Christian country, with deeply rooted traditions.

Zuma explained that his remarks were made in the context of the traditional way of raising children, reports BBC News.

He had commented in particular about the manner in which communities tended to neglect boys and over-emphasise the traditional upbringing of girls, as evidenced in ceremonies such as the reed dance.

“I said the communal upbringing of children in the past was able to assist parents to notice children with a different social orientation,” explained Zuma, “I however did not intend to have this interpreted as a condemnation of gays.”

Reuters reports that Zuma continued to say that he respected the “sterling contribution of many gay and lesbian compatriots in the struggle that brought about our freedom”.

“I apologise unreservedly for the pain and anger that my remarks may have caused,” he said.

The incident renewed controversy over Zuma’s suitability to succeed President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.

Debate over this has been raging since last year when he was fired over a corruption scandal.

His critics-including respected anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu-multiplied after he was charged with rape late last year and admitted at trial to having unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser. He was acquitted on those charges in May.

According to South Africa’s Independent Online, the Durban Lesbian and Gay Centre and Behind The Mask organisations have accepted Zuma’s apology for making homophobic statements.

“Now we look forward to Mr Zuma’s support for same-sex marriages,” said the Durban organisation’s director Nonhlanhla Mkhize in the article.

Mike Goddard, director of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, said: “Such utterances may be run of the mill for the likes of national leaders, such as Zimbabweis Robert Mugabe, but are startling when they emanate from a South African statesman.”

Zuma remains a hot favourite for the presidency, thanks to unwavering support from left wing allies of the ruling African National Congress and others in the ANC who see him as closer to ordinary South Africans than current President Mbeki.

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