Current Affairs

The ugly side of South Africa’s attitude to gays

V King Macdona September 3, 2009
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The South African city of Johannesburg is due to host the lesbian and gay film festival Out in Africa this week. It is the most successful LGBT film festival in whole of Africa and will feature the world première of South Africa’s first full length lesbian feature film, ‘Dykeumentary’.

This might suggest that South Africa’s attitude to lesbian and gay people is a positive one, but while this celebration of gay life is taking place, three men are being tried for the rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a high profile lesbian footballer.

Simelane, a player for Banyana Banyana and a prominent South African gay rights activist, was raped and stabbed to death in May 2008.

The three men, Khumbulani Magagula, Johannes Mahlangu and Themba Mvubu, face charges of murder, robbery and rape. Courts have already ruled the murder was not motivated by homophobia, despite Simelane’s sexuality being common knowledge.

Shortly after the murder, Carrie Shelver of People Opposed to Women Abuse said: “We believe that it is a homophobic hate crime simply by the fact that the victim in this case was a well known lesbian.”

Gay rights activists warn that ‘corrective’ gang rape has become a terrifying threat for gay women in the country, as a spate of attacks are suspected to have been motivated by the victims’ sexuality. Homophobic hate crimes are rife in South Africa, but these gang rapes, supposedly perpetrated in order to correct, or more likely punish lesbians for their orientation have created a new climate of fear.

In 2007, 34-year-old Sizakele Sigasa and 23-year-old Salome Masooa were raped, tortured and killed in Meadowlands, Soweto. Their hands were tied using their underwear and both were shot several times. In February 2006, lesbian Zoliswa Nonkonyane was murdered by a mob of 20 men. At least 31 murders of lesbians have been reported in the last ten years, with the likelihood that there have been more cases in which a homophobic motive has not been recorded.

But victims of hate-based crimes such as these are not suffieciently supported by the South African legal system, say gay rights advocates. The country was the first in the world to include protections against anti-gay discrimination in its constitution and the 2000 Equality Act specifically outlaws ‘hate crimes’, where people are targeted purely because of their identification as part of a group. Although this theoretically includes gay hate crimes, as yet it has only been used in cases involving racism.

South African police have been criticised by human rights organisations for failing to address homophobic crime. Gay rights group Triangle Project has claimed that police ignore reports from gay and lesbians that they had been assaulted or raped because of their sexual orientation and that some health workers had refused to help lesbians who had been raped.

According to a 2008 survey, 82 per cent of the adult population of South Africa thought that sex between two men or two women could be considered ‘always wrong’ as opposed to just 8 per cent who thought it was never wrong. The paper, from the Human Sciences Research Council, said: “Gay and lesbian identities continue to be characterised as ‘un-African'”. It added: “As the incidences of hate crimes against black lesbians and gay-bashing attest, the victory of constitutional equality clearly has not guaranteed the end to social discrimination.”

In the Simelane case, one man has already admitted robbery and murder and was subsequently sentenced to 32 years in prison. However, the judge stated that Simelane’s sexual orientation had “no significance” in the case, despite the fact that this was one in what seemed to be a series of rapes targeting lesbians. Commnenting on the judge’s statement, Phumi Mtetwa, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, said: “He failed to recognise that lesbians face rape and murder in South Africa.”

Despite the fact that some ways South Africa appears to be becoming more inclusive and less discriminatory, as the Out in Africa film festival attests, the country still appears to be rife with homophobia and the threat of hate-motivated rape and murder cannot be overcome until the police and judicial system change and address it directly.

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