Gays and lesbians fight for human rights in Africa

By S. Predrag, ivan@harare.iafrica.com

Harare, March 99 -- In the democratic South Africa of President Nelson Mandela, gays and lesbians can walk freely in the streets of Johannesburg during their "Pride parade." However, the situation in Zimbabwe and the most other African countries is quite different - homosexuals are openly prosecuted and punished.

South Africa is the first country in Africa whose constitutional court recently declared that consensual sexual intercourse between members of the same sex is no longer unlawful. It is also the country which recently hosted a "Pride parade" in Johannesburg - the largest gathering of gays and lesbians on the African continent.

"The Pride parade is our celebration of our self-awareness, we respect our individuality, and celebrate tolerance and humanity, and the right to love the person of our own choice," claimed one of the organisers of the march.

In neighbouring Namibia, homosexuals have yet to fight for their human rights. Namibian Home Affairs Minister, Jerry Ekandjo warned recently that he intends to introduce legislation to "curb the spread of homosexuality in society" by improsing "heavy penalties" on homosexuals.

Namibian media reported that the Minister also said that, "It is my considered opinion that the so-called gay rights can never qualify as human rights. They are wrongly claimed because it is against true Namibian culture, African culture and religion."

Zambia's vice-president, Lt. General Christon Tembo, also warned that his government would not tolerate lawlessness, and underlined that members of the newly-formed Lesbians, Gays and Transgender Persons Association risked being prosecuted according to existing laws which prohibit involvement in "unnatural" sex acts like sodomy or lesbianism.

It is widely believed that homosexuals are faced with the biggest challenges in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (75) is known for attacking homosexuals vociferously, saying that even "animals in the jungle are better than these people because at least they know that this is a man or a woman."

But, President Mugabe, who has been quoted as saying that homosexuals were "lower than dogs and pigs," was recently deeply embarrassed by the scandal involving his predecessor Canaan Banana (63).

The former President of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, who is a Methodist minister and the father of four grown-up children, was found guilty, among other charges, of two counts of sodomy - one involving his former security aide and soccer player, Jefta Dube, and a job-seeker, Ernest Ngwenya.

The scandal involving the former president (in office from 1980 to 1987) erupted in February of 1997, during the trial of his former aide, Jefta Dube.

At the time, Dube, a policeman, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for the 1995 murder of a fellow police officer who had tauntingly called him "Banana's wife."

Later, Jefta Dube claimed that he was allegedly raped by President Cannan Banana in the State House. The court heard testimony from witnesses such as Banana's cook, gardener, and others with similar accusations.

According to several witnesses, Banana lured his victims to the State House always using the same scenario: a game of cards, dance lessons, "French kissing"...

Banana unsuccessfully tried to reject all the accusations, saying that there was a "conspiracy against him."

Finaly, on January 18 this year, ex-President was sentenced to ten years in jail for homosexual assault. However, the High Court in Harare suspended nine of the ten years under the condition that he pays compensation to some of his numerous victims and does not repeat the same offence during the next three years.

Four years were suspended on the condition that Banana pays Z$500 000 (about US$12 000) in compensation to his victims, Jefta Dube, and to the family of a fellow policeman whom Dube murdered.

It remains to be seen whether the first President of Zimbabwe will leave his luxury villa in Mount Pleasant, Harare, and replace his elegant suit with a prisoner's garb, even for a much shorter period than one year...

GALZ was formed back in 1989 with the aim of trying to provide support services to the gay community, such as counseling, access to literature and films, and AIDS awareness. The organisation attempts to better the conditions under which homosexuals are forced to live.

A relative truce with the authorities lasted up to January 1994 when GALZ published an advertisement in the local newspaper, "The Daily Gazette," promoting its counseling services.

The Minister of Home Affairs, Dumisio Dabengwa, was the first to react, warning the local gay community that their activities were "illegal in this country" and he publicly threatened them with arrest.

Mugabe's open war with local homosexuals started four years ago when he called them "worse than pigs." This occurred after GALZ protested when the Zimbabwean government first allowed them to have their stand at the International Book Fair in Harare, but later revoked their permission.

Officially opening the Book Fair, Mugabe said, "I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and revulsive organisations, like those of homosexuals who offend both the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and even elsewhere in the world."

"If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomites and sexual perverts," he added, "what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organised drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality...what rights may they claim and allege they possess under the rubrics of individual freedom and human rights, including the freedom of the press to write, publish and publicise literature on them?"

Such an attack drew sharp criticism at the time from almost all over the world, including Amnesty International which published a statement condemning "a heavy-handed attack upon the fundamental human right to freedom of expression, to which the Zimbabwean government is ostensibly committed under its international legal obligations."

Amnesty International concluded that every living person has the right to freely hold and to express his or her convictions and to be free from any kind of discrimination, including by reason of their sexual orientation.

Soon after his attack on the local homosexuals, Mugabe found himself on the receiving end when he faced violent demonstrations at Ian Smuts international airport in Johannesburg when he arrived to attend a regional meeting.

According to South African media, several hundred South African gay and lesbian activists and their sympathizers forced Mugabe and his entourage to leave the airport through the back gate.

That was just the beginning of this undeclared war...

The GALZ Committee stated, at the time, that it was "deeply concerned by President Mugabe's statement on homosexuals at the official opening of the Book Fair which was intended to promote dialogue about human rights issues."

The same committee rejected "the official insinuations that our members are bent upon bestiality, drug addiction and sex in public places," voiced its support for "the right to personal privacy and responsible sex between consenting adults," and underlined that "we are in favour of protection of children from any form of sexual abuse."

These polemics continued with foreign participants after a group of around 70 members of the US Congress sent a letter to the Zimbabwean president, pointing out that "when individuals are mistreated by a government because of some basic characteristic of their nature, human rights are violated."

However, Mugabe soon responded in his characteristic manner, publicly sending the following message, "Let the Americans keep their sodomy, bestiality, their stupid and foolish ways to themselves... Keep those out of Zimbabwe...We do not want those kinds of behavior in our country."

Later on, he added a new twist to the story, asking his critics, "The reply to those against my stance on homosexuality is: can they prove to me that they can get pregnant?"

The previous year brought only a sporadic exchange of fire between Mugabe's government and GALZ, and the government of Zimbabwe, faced with growing social and economic woes, tried to avoid any heated debate with Western donors over the issue of human rights for gays and lesbians.

However, the war is far from over and may continue any moment now. 

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