South Africa debates same-sex marriage

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When the Joburg Pride parade proceeded through the northern suburbs of South Africa’s largest city recently, the reaction from onlookers seemed one of overwhelming support. Residents waved friendly signs, drivers honked and even traffic controllers showed their solidarity by sporting tutus.

South Africa is the only country in Africa to allow same-sex marriage, and its government and judiciary system have proved particularly progressive in their handling of gay rights issues, but both advocates and opponents of gay rights agree there is a growing movement to challenge the gay community’s legal advances.

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“People are just not prepared to let it go,” said Steve Swart, a member of parliament representing the African Christian Democratic Party. “Legislation was passed. Legislation can always be relooked at.”

After apartheid ended 15 years ago, South Africa moved quickly to grant recognition and rights to same-sex couples. As an organization that had fiercely fought the discrimination of the previous regime, the African National Congress-led government saw little logic in denying fundamental rights to a group based on sexual preference. South Africa's constitution became the first in the world to specifically enshrine the rights of homosexuals. Along the same lines, several court decisions ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, and in late 2005 the constitutional court gave parliament one year to make it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

The legalization process wasn’t a smooth one. Opponents marched on government buildings, and churches and other organizations voiced their opposition to same-sex marriage during a series of public hearings.

“To my knowledge the overwhelming majority of people were against same-sex marriage being legalized in South Africa under any circumstances,” said Errol Naidoo, president of the Family Policy Institute, an organization that promotes conservative family values.

The ANC had a strong enough majority of loyal members in parliament to get the law passed despite opposition from the ACDP and others, and in December 2006 South Africa’s first same-sex marriage was celebrated.

Passage of the bill did not achieve widespread acceptance for the gay cause. South Africa’s religious and traditional leaders by and large frown upon homosexuality, and South African society remains quite conservative. While homophobia is often latent, it can flare up in the most brutal of ways.

Last month, a man was sentenced to life in prison for the gang rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a former member of South Africa’s national women's soccer team and an openly gay woman. The body of the lesbian activist was found in a field last year.

“The laws and the constitution are way ahead of society,” said Zakhele Mbhele, a gay activist. “The laws themselves reflect the aspirations and the values that we should have but the vastness of society itself is still very conservative, very prejudiced when it comes to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues.”

Mbhele said he is not particularly worried that gay marriage would be rolled back in the near future given the substantial legal obstacles that would have to be overcome, but he did admit that gay rights opponents have been getting more organized since the same-sex marriage law was enacted.

What the Joburg Pride organizers call “the growing chorus of voices threatening to diminish the equality that we have secured since 1994” got a significant boost earlier this year when would-be President Jacob Zuma called for faith-based organizations to engage the government on same-sex marriage legislation. Zuma’s comment, which was made at the influential Rhema Church, followed remarks Zuma made a few years ago when he said that were he to face a homosexual man, he “would knock him out.”

Gay marriage opponents remain measured in their enthusiasm, but Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute said Zuma’s attitude is in sharp contrast to that of the previous administration, which Naidoo said was much more hostile to the church.

“I don’t know exactly what the president means, but he does seem more open so I’m hoping we can begin to start discussing this issue,” Naidoo said. “Most Christians in this country are still peeved over the fact that they were ignored and discounted by their government.” Anton van Niekerk, who attended the recent Joburg Pride, said he is watching efforts to repeal gay rights very carefully, but he said he has seen “a vast improvement” in South Africans’ acceptance of the gay community.

“Once you have greater integration, greater exposure to a culture, you’ll have a greater understanding of that culture,” he said.

Alhassan Abubakar hadn’t had much exposure to gay culture before he took in the sights of the Joburg Pride. The aspiring professional soccer player from Ghana deemed the parade “very fantastic.” Abubakar said he doesn’t agree with homosexuality but that he can only offer prayers.

“I think it’s wrong, but that is their choice,” Abubakar said. “My choice is my choice. Your choice, too, is your choice.”