South Africa: Why Is Jacob Zuma Attacking Queer People?

Former president puts tribal patriarchy ahead of our human rights

The right to same-sex marriage is integral to our Constitution’s protection of equality for LGBTIQ+ people. This right was secured in legislation in 2006 after decades of struggle. Now Jacob Zuma, the criminally convicted former president, has announced his intention to campaign against the right of LGBTIQ+ people to a family life.

Zuma’s presidency was marked by contempt for the Constitution and persistent unlawful conduct. Over the last 25 years, he was not only responsible for destroying state-owned entities and government departments, he has cynically avoided accounting for thievery, corruption, and state capture. In fact, when he was briefly incarcerated in 2022, Zuma inspired looting and violence that cost about 350 people their lives. He intensified racial divisions especially in KwaZulu-Natal, instead of taking his deserved punishment. Zuma has exploited the courts and the democratic institutions to defeat justice.

Now he would deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry, having enjoyed the right several times himself.

It has been reported that during a rally of 3,000 supporters of his uMkhonto weSizwe party in Pietermaritzburg earlier this month, he expressed his solidarity with tribal leaders’ alleged concern about same-sex marriages. He also implied that legislation supporting same-sex marriage lacks support from the majority of South Africa. These comments echo his 2006 sentiments that same-sex marriage is a “disgrace to the nation and to God”.

Let’s be clear: Zuma’s targeting of LGBTIQ+ rights is not the expression of a harmless personal opinion. It’s intended to whip up conservative populist support for his new party by attacking vulnerable and marginalised communities. While we are fighting against endemic gender-based violence and the repression of LGBTIQ+ people, Zuma is inflaming hatred and discrimination in the hope that it will return him to power.

It is important to remember that this is not just about the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Zuma’s insinuation that the legislation supporting same-sex marriage is anti-democratic. It exposes his antipathy towards the progressive elements of our Constitution which promote equal rights for all. Rolling back one human right pulls at the thread of all our human rights and threatens the fabric of our democracy. Zuma is attempting to manipulate conservative prejudices to create further division, anxiety, and strife. He is stoking tribal authoritarianism, knowing it could lead to more violence against LGBTIQ+ people.

I am writing this article as a lifelong political activist who is standing as an independent candidate for Parliament. I have had no other political party than the ANC which I joined in 1980 and remained a member for nearly 15 years. But political parties cannot expect us to join and vote for them when their MPs are not directly accountable to the people and the Constitution along with their parties. I also write this article as a queer man.

As a queer child, I experienced violent bullying from primary school until Standard Six (Grade 8). Religious hatred, the struggles with my family and society, the criminalisation of any queer relationship through the common law on sodomy, the law on disguises, the denial of the right of lesbians to raise their children, and often their commitment to mental institutions, terrorised us based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As a comrade once said: “Queer people have no country.”

Ironically, I found a deep acceptance in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and ANC in the Western Cape where leaders such as Theresa Solomon, Leila Patel, Zoli Malindi, Cheryl Carolus, and Johnny Issel set the tone that everyone has the right to equality. Despite its ups and downs, the ANC came to support equality for LGBTIQ+ people because we were present and active in the liberation movement.

The queer revolutionary leadership of Simon Nkoli during the Delmas Treason Trial and later through the founding of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW) was indispensable in transforming the ANC. It appears that Zuma did not get the message. GLOW, the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA) a UDF affiliate, the Association of Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians (ABIGALE) in Cape Town, and others were propelled into the constitutional negotiations by the Equality Foundation.

I was a co-founder of ABIGALE, the first working-class LGBTIQ+ political organisation that united black African and coloured people with middle-class white people in Cape Town. In 1994, I co-founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality with Phumi Mtetwa, Graeme Reid, and others. We ensured that the equality clause retained sexual orientation as a ground for non-discrimination by the state, private companies, institutional bodies, and individuals.

Over the next five years, a revolution took place in South Africa’s legal system because the final Constitution recognised equality and dignity as cornerstones of freedom. As queer activists who came mainly from the liberation movement, the coalition worked with a range of organisations to ensure that our new Parliament protected people living with disabilities, women, workers, people living with HIV/AIDS, children, and LGBTIQ+ people. Laws on employment (Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Labour Relations Act, and the Employment Equity Act) all outlawed discrimination in the workplace. The Medical Schemes Act protected LGBTIQ+ people and the coalition worked to ensure that pregnant women, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, as well as people living with HIV/AIDS were not excluded from coverage.

I worked with many other leaders and activists in the coalition on two of the most important cases that laid the foundation for the enforcement of the equality provision of the Constitution to protect and advance the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. As a gay man, I could go to prison for expressing love. The decriminalisation of the colonial common law offence of sodomy and the apartheid Sexual Offences Act created an equal right for LGBTIQ+ people to love whom we wanted. Our case on behalf of LGBTIQ+ citizens and permanent residents to live in families set out the basis on which same-sex marriage was to be recognised.

In a unanimous judgment, the Constitutional Court told the Department of Home Affairs: “Section 10 of the Constitution recognises and guarantees that everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected. The message [in the Immigration Act] is that gays and lesbians lack the inherent humanity to have their families and family lives in such same-sex relationships respected or protected. It serves in addition to perpetuate and reinforce existing prejudices and stereotypes. The impact constitutes a crass, blunt, cruel, and serious invasion of their dignity. The discrimination, based on sexual orientation, is severe because no concern, let alone anything approaching equal concern, is shown for the particular sexual orientation of gays and lesbians.”

Today, LGBTIQ+ people enjoy equal rights to family life because the ANC, representing the majority of people, realised that the rights to justice, life, dignity, equality, privacy, and security of the person are for everyone and not subject to majoritarian populism.

Jacob Zuma is a criminal prepared to burn our country down for his right to steal from the working class. His political party is dangerous and will be prepared to use “crass, blunt, cruel and serious invasion[s]” of our humanity as queer people. I take equality for all, including Zuma, seriously because our Constitution and history demand it.

The LGBTIQ+ activists will continue to be at the centre of struggles by people living with disabilities, those who live lives of horror in informal settlements and backyards, the elderly queuing in the rain and sun for measly pensions, and the women who patrol their communities to keep children, workers and their communities safe.

We are activists who are queer, not queer activists, and we will be a bedrock in all struggles of the working class.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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