Although South African high commissioner to Uganda Jon Qwelane was successful in petitioning the Equality Court to rescind its hate-speech judgement against him in August, the matter is far from over. The case against Qwelane related to a column he penned for the Sunday Sun in 2008, headlined: “Call me names, but gay is NOT okay”. In October, the Human Rights Commission, which brought the original case against Qwelane, indicated that it would resubmit the case. The appeal was won on a technicality, owing to the fact that Qwelane did not present his side of the story as diplomatic duties meant he was in Uganda at the time.
Qwelane’s attitude towards homosexuals (in his column he compared homosexuality to bestiality) is particularly contentious, given his current position in Uganda – a country that is currently trying to pass an Anti-Homosexuality Bill through parliament.
Now Qwelane’s views have been brought into the spotlight once again, with DA MP Kenneth Mubu’s parliamentary question to Department of International Relations and Cooperation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on Wednesday. Mubu asked the minister whether Dirco intended to recall Qwelane from his position, in light of the fact that he had been found guilty of hate-speech in the Equality Court’s original ruling in June.
In her answer to Mubu, Nkoana-Mashabane justified Qwelane’s continued status as high commissioner by reiterating that the column in question had appeared long before he was appointed to his current position. She went on to state: “As a representative of the South African government in a foreign country, Mr Qwelane upholds the values and principles of the South African Constitution. South African envoys are made aware of the provisions of the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, when addressing sensitive issues like the one quoted above.”
If she really wants to convince us of this, it would be nice to hear Qwelane giving an official speech championing the rights of homosexuals, and indicating how his position has changed in the last three years. That’s probably not going to happen though.
As things stand, Mubu and the DA are refusing to let the matter rest, and quite rightly so. As Daily Maverick pointed out back in June: “Ambassadors are, or rather should be, chosen based on their record, moral standing and their ability to present the best of South Africa. In cases where the country of their posting has laws at loggerheads with our own Constitution, their commitment to representing South Africa’s position is critical. Our gay-rights legislation, including the Civil Union Bill, is the front-runner on the continent. We need to appoint ambassadors who are willing to promote this stance. Not speak out against it, either prior to or during their time in office. Airing one’s opinion at a dinner party among friends is one thing, but writing in your personal capacity on a public platform, as Qwelane did, is quite another.”
Mubu issued a strongly worded statement on Wednesday afternoon, echoing these sentiments. It was titled: “Dirco’s call on Jon Qwelane is wrong” and read in part: “Qwelane has in the past made disparaging remarks about gay and lesbian people. That the Department of International Relations and Cooperation has seen fit to appoint him as a representative of South Africa, particularly to a country which has seen vicious homophobic attacks, is a serious error of judgment.
“Our ambassadors are supposed to represent the basic provisions of our democracy and encourage their extension to the countries in which they serve if they do not exist there already. One of those provisions is the freedom of sexual orientation. It is quite clear that Jon Qwelane is not up to this task.” Mubu indicated that he would be writing to the portfolio committee on international relations and cooperation, requesting that Nkoana-Mashabane submit a full explanation about her department’s decision not to recall Qwelane.
Meanwhile, gay activists also questioned Dirco’s approach. “We are not entirely happy with the minister’s response,” Cobus Fourie from the SA Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation told iMaverick. “I feel that Jon Qwelane has displayed a complete disregard for the Constitution before,” Fourie contined. “Despite the fact that he is no longer a journalist one should look at this track record to decide if it’s suitable for an important position such as ambassador or high commissioner – especially in a country such as Uganda.”
Daily Maverick was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Qwelane in Uganda, and Dirco spokesman Clayson Monyela appeared nonplussed by a request for comment. He refused to discuss the criticism Dirco’s decision has attracted, stating simply: “In terms of the issue of recalling or not recalling, the minister is on record; she’s responded to that question.” That she’s done, but it’s certain Nkoana-Mashabane will have many more questions to answer about this issue in the future. DM
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