Africa’s gays are looking for their own Nelson Mandela — someone who will rescue them from violence and a raft of laws that criminalize gay sex.
In other words, precisely what Mandela could not do, despite his efforts.
Among his many achievements, Mandela became a hero to the global gay-rights movement for helping make South Africa a pioneer in outlawing anti-gay discrimination. Yet activists say the laws have neither quelled violence against gays and lesbians in Mandela’s homeland nor induced nations elsewhere in Africa to abandon their harsh statutes against homosexuality.
Indeed, government-encouraged intolerance of gay sex and gay-rights activism is pervasive across the continent. According to human rights groups, more than two-thirds of African countries outlaw consensual same-sex acts, and discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people is commonplace.
On paper, at least, South Africa is a dramatic exception. In 1996, during Mandela’s presidency after the fall of apartheid, the country became the first in the world with an explicit constitutional ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Under court rulings citing the constitution, South Africa in 2006 became the first country on the continent — and only the fifth in the world — to legalize same-sex marriage.
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the U.S. gay-rights group Lambda Legal, noted that the United States still lags behind South Africa on both accounts — with no federal ban on anti-gay discrimination and with laws against same-sex marriage on the books in 34 of the 50 states.
Cathcart was among many gay-rights leaders worldwide eulogizing Mandela.
“Every one of us who continues the fight for equality and civil rights in our own communities labors in the shadows of this man,” Cathcart said.
Along with the praise, some activists said Mandela’s legacy included a notable flaw — his reluctance to tackle the epidemic of HIV and AIDS that was spreading through South Africa during his 1994-99 presidency.
“HIV was killing more South Africans than the vile system of apartheid ever did, claiming 600 lives a day,” said British gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell.
“Mandela bowed to public sensitivities and taboos,” Tatchell said. “He refused calls to lead a public education and prevention campaign. His government failed to make anti-HIV drugs widely available. Earlier and stronger action would have saved tens of thousands lives.”
After leaving politics, however, Mandela did engage in the fight against AIDS, motivated in part by the death of his son, Makgatho, from the disease.
AIDS remains a severe problem in South Africa, as does anti-gay violence. One particular scourge, according to activists, is so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians perpetrated on the premise the victim can be converted away from same-sex attraction.
“Violence is used as punishment for breaking gender rules,” said Tumi Thandeka Mkhuma, a lesbian activist from Johannesburg who joined other gay-rights advocates from Africa for a series of events last week in New York organized by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
Another South African in the group, Melanie Judge of Cape Town, remarked on the “deep contradictions” between her country’s landmark laws and the persistent violence and bias.
“We can have all the laws and policies in the world, but one needs the political will to make them real,” Judge said, placing the onus on national politicians and local civic leaders.
Elsewhere in the region, according to the visiting activists, anti-gay violence is compounded by long-standing laws criminalizing gay sex and by the tendency of some politicians to demonize gays as a way of distracting the public from economic woes.
“The homophobia that is in Africa will take time to go away,” said Gift Trapence of Malawi in a video made for the human rights commission. “We are not asking for gay marriage. We are just asking for the basic fundamental human rights … to be protected from hate speeches, to be protected from the killings.”
In Cameroon, two men were sentenced to prison in July for gay sex, less than two weeks after a prominent gay rights activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe, was tortured and killed in an attack. Lembembe was the most prominent African gay-rights campaigner to be killed since 2011, when the victims included South African lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza and Uganda’s David Kato.
Uganda has been under scrutiny by international gay-rights groups since 2009, when a lawmaker proposed a bill that would mandate the death penalty for some gay acts.
Friedel Dausab, an activist from Namibia on the delegation visiting New York, said his country’s anti-sodomy law deters gays from seeking health services, worsening the HIV and AIDS problem.
“The prevalence rate in jails is very high,” he said. “Yet officials refuse to give out condoms in the jails — they say they don’t want to abet a crime.”
An activist visiting from Zambia, Juliet Mphande, said laws in her country criminalizing gay sex carry lengthy prison terms. Anti-gay sentiment is so intense, she said, that sometimes young gays and lesbians are turned into police by their own families.
The visiting activists offered advice to the West as to how best to promote the cause of gay rights. Threats to cut foreign aid and public criticism of African government leaders could backfire and undermine their own advocacy work, they said.
They suggested that Western governments consult more closely with local gay-rights groups in Africa, providing them with direct financial support and offering scholarships for gay Africans to attend college in the West.
“It took Nelson Mandela 27 years in prison to gain his freedom,” said the Rev. Kapya Koama, a Zambian who is now rector of an Episcopal church in Boston. “It may take us 100 years, but we are going to win ours.”