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South Africa's Ongoing Struggle Against Discrimination

Charles Leonard
Photo by Zanele Muholi, originally published in Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives, eds. Ruth Morgan and Saskia Wieringa (Jacana Media, 2005)

Before the end of this year South Africa could be the fifth country and the first on the African continent to legalize same-sex marriages. But as Leonard reports, despite open-minded policy and laws, many closets are likely to remain shut.

I closed my eyes on that hot Pretoria night and it sounded like I was back in the church in my little home town decades before ...the slow, devotional voices of the congregants singing an old hymn in Afrikaans, "Dear Jesus, we are together here upon your calling, united in your name...", gently hurried along by the pipe-organ. And as the priest leads with the confession, "I believe in God the father..." the slow-whirling fans hanging from the roof fight a losing battle, basically just spreading the summer air evenly across the packed congregation.

It was just like back then, except in one crucial way: this congregation in South Africa's capital city couldn't be further from the one my parents used to take me to as a kid years ago. The Reforming Church is a church catering for gay Christians and I'm attending their popular Sunday evening service to do a report for a BBC radio program the week after the predominantly white, Dutch Reformed Church's 2004 synod. The latter is the biggest Afrikaans church and used to be known as the Nationalist Party � the rulers during apartheid � at prayer. Its synod gets together every four years and is the church's highest decision-making body. During the establishment of apartheid and its harsh implementation in its years in power, the church provided the state with its moral justification for this brutal policy of racial separation. It also helped enforce the state's moral conservatism by not allowing love across the colorbar and between people of the same sex.

The 2004 synod was a very important one. By that time South Africa was almost a decade down the road as a non-racial democracy and the former whites-only church had no choice but to comply. But in spite of the fact that section 9 of South Africa's constitution outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation, the church was still strongly gay-unfriendly. So all eyes of the gay church's congregants, most of them brought up in the mother church they split off from 10 years previously, but taking its liturgy with, were on the members of the synod to see if they had moved closer to acceptance of gay people. Sadly, they were to be disappointed yet again in spite of the brave battles fought by some of the younger, liberal ministers in that church. They referred the decision to accept gay people as normal congregants without damning their "lifestyles" to a commission, which was to report back at the next sitting in 2008.

Barney Virgarelis is one of the founder members of the gay church: "As far as I'm concerned the Lord hasn't rejected us and we are Christian people and we should be tolerant. We are being judged, but we should make the same mistake in judging people who judged us." His minister, Reverend Andre Muller, draws a parallel with apartheid: "The same kind of difficulty these people had with accepting black people in their congregations, they now have with accepting gay people."

Feminist theologian, Professor Christina Landman at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, blames this reluctance to accept gay people unreservedly into the church on a deep-rooted patriarchal culture. "I'm not gay myself," she says, "but I feel as a woman living in this macho culture I have a strong identification with the problems gay and lesbian people are feeling � as victims of this macho, very powerful Afrikaner culture that influences every aspect of our lives. I think that over the decades of Afrikaner rule and even now, there is a strong link between race and sexuality. I believe a man who thought he didn't need to show any respect to a black person, such a man also has no respect for a woman's body and no respect for a gay person's sexual preferences. White men took away black people's land and rights, took control of women, and now that they've lost political power, want to retain control over gay people's lives."

Reverand Laurie Gaum probably knows better than most about this power the church wants over South African's lives. In late August this year the openly gay minister was told by the Dutch Reformed Church authorities that he was no longer allowed on his Cape Town congregation's pulpit unless he signs an undertaking to "live celibately". He refused and resigned. An Afrikaans Sunday paper, Rapport, now says the handling of the Gaum affair could split the church in two ("Row in church over Gaum" written by Marlene Malan, 28 August 2005), with a debate raging over how openly gay congregants should be treated.

But it isn't only within the white part of South Africa where people have mixed feelings about sexuality. In the larger African community, right across the continent in fact, homosexuality is seen as "un-African" and a western "abhorrence". Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, with his flaying arms and mincing walk perhaps the campiest leader in the world, has described gay people as lower than animals. The former liberation leader and now trampler upon human rights is not alone in this homophobia on the African continent. As gay activists and academics, Ruth Morgan and Saskia Wieringa, say in the introduction to the new book they've edited, Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives (Jacana Media, Johannesburg 2005): "Same-sex practices in general, and more particular women' same-sex relations, have been difficult to research in Africa due to the fact that many African leaders declare it taboo on the basis that it is 'unAfrican' and an 'import from the West'. The general homophobia of post-colonial governments, apart from South Africa, is compounded by the local patriarchal system in each country, making lesbian women doubly oppressed."

Sub-titled "Female same-sex practices in Africa", the book poignantly documents case studies of the largely secret same-sexual lives of women in six countries, and demonstrates that there are silenced, traditional and institusionalized ways in which African women contracted same-sex relations across the ages. These include forms of traditional same-sex practices, namely women marriages amongst the Kamba tribe in Kenya and ancestral marriages of traditional healers (sangomas) in South Africa. The authors point out that although the power of the sangoma is still strong in South Africa, sexuality within same-sex marriages is still seen as a taboo by the majority of heterosexual sangomas, but that younger lesbian sangomas are open about their sexuality in the more liberal urban areas.

One of the lesbian sangomas, Nkunzi Nkabinde, interviewed 30 sangomas for a chapter of this book. "In order to become a sangoma," she writes, "a person needs to receive a calling from their ancestors. Ancestors play a critical role in the life of a sangoma. The ancestors are the holy spirits of deceased family members, and provide us with the gift of healing and the ability to predict what will happen in the future." The calling comes in through a dream, a vision or sickness, she says.

Traditionally both male and female sangomas are allowed to have ancestral wives to help them with their healing work. Ancestral wives have an important role to play in relation to the ancestors. Nkabinde says they help the sangoma by collecting herbs or preparing their outfits for their shaman-like dance. She says the ancestral wives are identified by the ancestors for them.

"Although same-sex relationships within ancestral marriages are supposed to be taboo," says Nkabinde, "some modern sangomas are using these marriages to have secret sexual relationships in rural areas. In urban areas some of them are being more public about their same-sex relationships. My feeling is that women sangomas have always used ancestral wives as a way to have secret same-sex relationships. The secrecy is so deep that most people still think that same-sexuality is unAfrican. By doing this research and by coming out myself as a same-sex sangoma, I have been breaking the silence around sangomas and same-sexuality."

Nkabinde says same-sex sangomas are powerful people at the centre of African culture, occupying a special position in society as they are respected and feared. Sangomas who are involved in same-sex relationships don't have the problem of being harassed by the community. In South African townships lesbian rape is a punishment and seen as necessary by thugs in order "to teach visible lesbians a lesson", she writes. "However same-sex sangomas are not raped as people are afraid of the sangomas because of the power that they believes sangomas have."

South Africa's Constitutional Court is expected to make a ruling within the next few months regarding same-sex marriages. A number of gay and lesbian lobby groups have approached the court proposing that the common law definition of marriage � which only include "husband" and "wife" � be declared unconstitutional, which would legalize same-sex marriages. The country's gays and lesbians have already won a range of legislative reforms: the decriminalization of sodomy; immigrant partners of lesbian and gay people are allowed and can now apply for permanent residence on the basis of a same-sex relationship with a South African partner; same-sex couple adoption; and domestic partner benefits - lesbian women can now turn to artificial insemination and have their partner registered as a parent of that child ("SA's gays and lesbians wait to be recognized", written by Reesha Chibba, Mail & Guardian, 11 July 2005).

But how will the broader South African community react if the Constitutional Court, which has established itself as eminently forward-looking, removes this final hurdle to same-sex marriages? Or looked at differently, will practice follow policy? My examples above indicate that despite its mostly progressive rulers and constitution, South Africa is still a country plagued by narrow-mindedness dictated by conservative interpretations of religion and also the exclusion of what is seen as "un-African".

So it means that there won't be tolerance and acceptance of same-sex marriages happening overnight. But it is perhaps useful to look at how the dismantling of laws that made racial discrimination legal under the system of apartheid has helped normalizing the South African society. As Funkadelic's album title says Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow. Let's hope the same will happen if same-sex marriages, symbolically important for gay and lesbian liberation, become legal. Then only will we be a truly rainbow nation, with room for all this country's people as first-class citizens.

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