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Human Rights for Lesbians and Gays in the New South Africa: Still Much Work to Do

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Zoliswa Nkonyana, Zizakele Sigasa, and Salome Masooa helped me to understand the critical importance of Atlantic’s work to support the rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered and intersex people in South Africa.

gay flagSadly, these young women were not among the many South Africans I met on my first visit there as Atlantic’s president in June. It was the appalling violence of their murders that helped me to understand.

Zoliswa, 19, was walking home one night in February last year from the local tavern in Khayelitsa, a township near Cape Town, when she was set upon by six boys who beat her to death with a golf club. Salome and Zizakele were found one Sunday morning last month, dead near a dumpsite in Soweto. Zizakele’s hands were bound with her underpants, her feet with her shoelaces. She was riddled with six bullet holes and according to some reports tortured before. (To read more about these crimes and the response to them, see Jeannine Cameron’s article elsewhere on our website).

Each of these women was a lesbian living on the uneasy border between traditional macho culture and the new South Africa’s reputation as a human rights leader. South Africa’s constitution provides as much protection for LGBTI people as any in the world, and the ANC government recently legalized civil unions across the country. In that sense, it is well ahead of, say, the United States, and a model for the world.

But despite a protective legal regime, the reality in communities is often different, and that’s where Atlantic’s support is directed. My colleague Gerald Kraak, who leads our Reconciliation and Human Rights work in South Africa, sees both the promise and the challenge.

“There is a clear recognition in South African law and by the government that gays and lesbians should be treated in non-discriminatory way,” Gerald said recently from Johannesburg, where Atlantic’s South Africa staff is based. “But on the ground it’s a different story. On the ground and particularly in black poor communities there is a strong sense of homophobia and discrimination.”

Atlantic’s grantees who work in communities where the murders of lesbians took place say they are part of a frightening trend of harassment, physical intimidation and worse against women, people living with HIV/AIDS, and lesbian and gay people.

The trend also includes the “corrective” rape of lesbians to cure them of their lesbianism by having sex with a man, and the equally sickening pattern of rapes of effeminate seeming gay men.

These should be considered hate crimes and prosecuted vigorously. But the South African government does not track statistics on hate crimes. Indeed, police often refuse to characterize obvious hate crimes as such so there is no telling how many such incidents stain South Africa’s democracy.

To address this, the Joint Working Group, a national network of organizations in the LGBTI community committed to social justice in South Africa launched the 07-07-07 Campaign – named for the day on which Zizakele and Salome were murdered – an anti-hate crimes advocacy initiative to fill the gap between what’s promised and what’s real.

The Joint Working Group brings together more than a dozen activist groups, most of whom are Atlantic grantees (more are joining all the time; a list appears below, with links to some websites), with a strategic view of the stakes and how to make change. To start, they want to tell the story of the murders, and others like them, which received distressingly little attention in the South African press. The names and images must become known nationally – as Matthew Shepard was in the U.S. – symbols of a problem that must be conquered. (For example, according to OUT LGBT Wellbeing, a South African LGBTI advocacy group, the homes or properties of 67% of black gay men have been attacked because of their sexuality.)

The Joint Working Group’s work involves media relations, research and documentation, community mobilization, alliance building and the legal and lobbying work that will go into effecting meaningful changes in the lives of South Africans. They want police to track hate crimes and to respond to them effectively. They want victims to be treated in ways that are particular to the harm that has been inflicted.

When Atlantic began its work, the visible leadership of the organized LGBTI community was white, male and middle class – an outcome of the country’s apartheid past. With the advent of democracy in 1994, there has been a flowering of gay and lesbian organizations in South Africa’s poor inner-city areas, townships and small rural towns. Atlantic’s programme has tried to support this trend, providing assistance on the basis of a commitment to outreach beyond the urban centres, building networks of black and lesbian leadership and a commitment to collaborative action.

All South Africans have a stake in this. As Melanie Judge, advocacy manager of OUT LGBT Well-Being in Pretoria, tells us, sexual orientation is only one aspect of the discrimination involved. It also involves the stigma of HIV, poverty, race, or many other factors. It is difference that provokes hatred and violence.

I have worked on behalf of LGBTI rights for 30 years, mostly in the United States. But when I came to Atlantic I wondered why this was a priority for us in South Africa, which seemed like a beacon for us all. Now I know. Or as Judge says in a turn of phrase that is applicable to the lives of the marginalized and persecuted all over the world, “There is a gap between the constitutional reality and the lived reality.”


A note to readers in the United States:

A number of you, particularly those just learning about Atlantic Philanthropies, have asked why this column, and our website and other materials, use spellings like “programme” and “organise.” I’m an American, to be sure, and about half of Atlantic’s staff is located in New York, but most of the countries in which we work use these spellings, which are the global standard for English. I believe this is appropriate because we are not a U.S. foundation, but a global foundation, a number of whose leaders are based in New York. But as always, I welcome your comments on these or any other matters.

Gara LaMarche


For more information, some groups supporting the 07-07-07 Campaign are: