South Africa: Pride and prejudice

David Beresford, Guardian Unlimited - 2 Jan 07

The year 2006 can now be seen as the year of liberation for South Africa's gay population, the year in which single-sex marriages were given the go-ahead (there may still be some squabbles over the legislative small print). With it came the principle, at least, of sexual equality. Considering that the gay liberation struggle has only been going on for 16 years, that is quite an achievement.

To the extent that any social movement could be said to have had a beginning, South Africa's gay people started their bid for freedom in Johannesburg on October 13 1990. This was the date when South Africa's first gay pride march, with all the accompanying razzmatazz, passed through the streets of the country's commercial capital.

If there was any doubt about the moment's significance, there was a counterpart to Nelson Mandela on hand to point it out: Simon Nkoli, the charismatic gay leader and Delmas treason prisoner. "This is what I say to my comrades in the struggle when they ask why I waste time fighting for moffies," [a mildly contemptuous term for gays] Nkoli told the assembled marchers. "This is what I say to gay men and lesbians who ask me why I spend so much time struggling against apartheid when I should be fighting for gay rights. I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles."

"In South Africa I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am gay," he continued. "So when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions. All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice. With this march, gays and lesbians are entering the struggle for a democratic South Africa where everybody has equal rights and everyone is protected by the law: black and white; men and women, gay and straight." Tragically Nkoli himself was not to see his dream realised, dying of Aids-related illnesses before it became a reality.

A recently-published book of reminiscences on South Africa's pride parades (Pride: Protest and Celebration, edited by Shaun de Waal and Anthony Manion) brings home the impact the annual event has had, not only on the lives of participants, but the lives of gay people across the African continent. As one of the contributors to the book remarks perspicuously: "The continent of Africa is probably the most repressive in terms of homosexuals. The importance of having 10,000 gay people marching through an African city is just immense and sometimes we don't appreciate that enough."

"We assembled in the rain once we had done our preparations and painted our placards," recalled one participant in the first march. "And then we were off, this small group of history-making people. There was a sense of being pioneers, a feeling of courage." For some, the sense of courage was a little while coming, with many initially wearing brown paper bags over their heads to hide their identity, before stripping them off as the protest got into full swing.

"That Saturday in October was a turning point in my life," said another marcher. "Taking part in pride marches helped me to answer the lingering questions: Who am I? Am I African, or am I gay? In the culture I was raised in, to be a 'stabane' [homosexual] meant you were not a real man. Homosexuality was seen as a white thing."

A striking aspect of the struggle for gay rights was the way it mirrored the struggle against racism. As with the broader liberation struggle, the fight for gay rights has its horror stories to tell. Like those of "corrective rape", or the mob murder of a 19-year-old lesbian, Zoliswa Nkonyana.

Even the silliness of apartheid seems to have had its counterpart in the state's victimisation of gay people. Like banning orders, which prohibited a "banned" person from attending a "gathering", defined as two or more people. In the same way, a 1969 law made it punishable for a sexual act to be committed "at a party", defined as "any occcassion where more than two men are present".

But the silliness was wiped from the statute books as, one by one, the barriers fell. Gay dependents were recognised by medical aid schemes and the inland revenue service acknowledged their entitlement to tax breaks of matrimony. Their rights to adopt children were also recognised and 1998 saw the abolition of sodomy as a common law offence "inconsistent with the constitution".

The reforms were shocking to many. But in the words of constitutional lawyer Wim Trengrove: "What we're talking about is not whether one is gay or not. After all, gay marriage is not going to be compulsory. It is merely allowing other people to do what they choose to do, rather than prescribing to them what they must do. The issue is tolerance and respect."

"Repent, sodomites," an evangelist, Neil Winwood, screamed at the 1998 pride march. Asked by a newspaper reporter what he felt about the parade, Mr Winwood said he attended it every year. "I wouldn't miss it for the world," he added.

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