The leaders who spoke of an African Renaissance and who brought about the African Union ignored gay rights. We are seeing the consequences of their omission today. By Leon Linz for GROUNDUP.
The Constitutive Act of the African Union mentions gender equality, human rights and social justice. But in contrast to the South African Constitution, sexual orientation was left out. That probably wasn’t an unintentional omission and it was a sign of things to come.
In a throwback to the Immorality Act, one of the Apartheid regime’s crimes against humanity, Uganda’s new law introduces even more draconian measures against homosexuality than previously existed.
“Offenders” are liable to a seven-year imprisonment. “Serial offenders” are guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” and are to receive life in prison, as are people with HIV who have homosexual sex. People charged under this new act have to be tested for HIV.
The law even prohibits Ugandans from having same-sex relationships outside Uganda and provides for them to be extradited. It also bans the “promotion of homosexuality”. The definition of “promotion” in the law is so wide that even this article might be illegal in Uganda.
The new act also makes its a crime for a “person in authority” not to report gay people. This has of course, the potential to severely impact the access of lesbian, gay, and transgender people to health care and mental health services.
Ugandan gay rights activists like Frank Mugisha live in fear of being attacked. With the Act signed into law last week there is every reason to suspect that there will be an increase in violence against gays and lesbians. As the Act became law, a Ugandan tabloid, Red Pepper, printed the names of people it referred to as “the top 200 homosexuals”.
Uganda is not alone. Russia, Pakistan, Nigeria and India have also recently imposed repugnant abuses of human rights. In Russia, where Putin has carried out a sustained attack on gay people, homophobes have started luring gay people on the Internet into meetings where they are then attacked. This, according to CNN, is referred to by the homophobes as “going on safari”.
The Ugandan law states that it is designed to “protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda.” The Apartheid nationalists used the same justification for their violations of human rights.
What is even more intriguing about the Ugandan law is that the impetus for the protection of culture apparently comes from none other than a neo-colonial force of oppression, fundamentalist Christians. According to Public Health Watch, Christian fundamentalists from the US influenced Uganda’s social and political movements, leading to the current legislation. Last year, the Huffington Post reported that American fundamentalists operate both openly and covertly, conducting crusades to convert Africans to their extremist views.
A report by Political Research Associates titled Globalizing the Culture Wars explains how presidents like Museveni of Uganda, Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Nujoma of Namibia have all used homosexuality to distract people from the issues facing their countries by claiming that gay people are responsible for the moral decay in Africa.
What a striking and awful irony that leaders who had so much to say about colonial and Apartheid oppression, and heralded themselves as liberators, have ended up as frontline oppressors themselves. Anyone who calls for an end to oppression against themselves, yet derives great pleasure in oppressing others, is no lover of freedom. Anyone seeking freedom from the shackles of colonialism, racism or any other form of inhuman degradation, yet keeps others in chains, is no lover of democracy, humanity or decency. And anyone who talks freedom while practising oppression is a barefaced hypocrite.
The same values set that gave rise to Apartheid, that infects racist, sexist thinking and in its worst consequences results in genocide, can be seen in the legislative hate of the Ugandan law. It is precisely this deeply rooted contempt that lies at the heart of any form of discrimination, oppression or annihilation.
Nelson Mandela spoke of freedom as no one person ever experiencing oppression at the hands of another, that human rights are indeed for all. In 2006, the then-minister of defence, Mosiuoa Lekota, spoke eloquently in support of gay rights when he expressed support for same-sex marriage. He said, “This country cannot afford to continue to be a prisoner of the backward, time-worn prejudices that have no basis.” How refreshing it would be if a current ruler on our continent of moral stature and ethical courage came out and said that Africa could not afford to continue to be held captive to prejudices that had no basis.
We must question the South African government’s commitment to gay rights too; it has not been unequivocal despite constitutional and legislative protections. The government’s response to Uganda’s new law was muted and delayed. We appointed the homophobe, Jon Qwelane, as ambassador to Uganda. A cabinet minister reportedly referred to art depicting lesbian women as “immoral”, and the president had to apologise for homophobic remarks.
Hate crimes against gays and lesbians are regularly reported. We should not be complacent; homophobia is an easy itch to scratch here, as elsewhere on the continent. We need to be concerned about any attacks on freedom wherever they may occur. We need to make it clear that what is happening in Uganda and elsewhere on this continent is not the kind of “African way” we wish to see. We need to understand most importantly, that we cannot be free so long as some remain oppressed.
The Constitutive Act of the African Union needs to be revisited. We need a new updated African Charter that provides for sexual orientation rights and compels all the member nations to abide by it, with the threat of sanctions.
If sanctions, boycotts and divestment were good enough as a tangible response to Apartheid, they are equally justified as an expression of contempt against the inhuman brutality of oppression that we see against people who happen to be lesbian or gay. DM
Photo: David Bahati, author of Uganda’s new anti-gay bill, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni. (REUTERS/Edward Echwalu)
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