The University of Cape Town student body’s response to the homophobia expressed by Student Representative Council vice-president Zizipho Pae is worrying. What we’ve seen are expressions of anger, pain and irrationality, rather than reasoned argument, public advocacy and effective activism.
This column first appeared on GroundUp.
In response to the US Supreme Court’s decision recognising gay marriage, University of Cape Town (UCT) Student Representative Council (SRC) vice-president Zizipho Pae wrote on her Facebook page on June 28: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” Pae has continued to defend her statement.
In response to her comments, on July 28, the SRC notified the student body that it had voted seven against one to expel her from the council. The SRC cites four clauses in its constitution that informed its decision, but does not attempt to explain why Pae’s comments or views fall foul of these. Pae has also said her office has been invaded and vandalised in response to her comments. UCT vice-chancellor Max Price issued a statement, also on July 28, saying the university was seeking legal opinion on the SRC decision. He condemned the invasion and vandalism of Pae’s office.
Pae is a figure with popular support at UCT. In the 2014 SRC elections, she stood as an independent and received about 2,500 votes, far more than any other candidate. As far as I understand her Christianity was made clear in her campaign. Pae was also involved in the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement. I am sceptical of aspects of the movement, but Pae’s Facebook page, which was a model of tolerance and interesting discussion by both black and white students at the height of the movement, helped me to better understand the RMF positions, and sympathise with some of them.
In GroundUp’s series on UCT and transformation, we (Kevin Elliott and I) cited Pae twice, noting how well she was managing the debate on her page. Elliott also conducted a lengthy interview with her. There is no question that she is a thoughtful person with considered views. The same cannot be said for some of her SRC colleagues. The SRC president expressed written views that can only be described as intolerant and racist towards black and white students, yet he received barely any criticism.
None of this tells us much about whether Pae is a fit person for the UCT SRC. But my experience is that she’s not a hateful, thoughtless monster. The view she has expressed, for example, is not even vaguely similar to the former University of the Witwatersrand SRC president’s Hitler rants. Hers is not an expression of hate. She is not crude like the US Westboro Baptist Church, which gloats that “God hates fags”.
Pae’s view on same-sex marriage and relationships is homophobic, though she does not believe so. But the crucial point about her view is its faith-based framework. That is legitimate. Many, probably most, South Africans operate from faith belief systems. What her comments have demanded is thoughtful challenge of whether the view that same-sex relationships are sinful is compatible with elementary decency in a modern constitutional state, and whether it conforms with our country’s commitment to diversity and tolerance.
Instead what was notable was the poverty of the argument by UCT students in response. GroundUp received a submission from a UCT student that was a personal attack on Pae, coupled with expressions of pain and references to her past political sins. There was no attempt to address the content of her views. We did not publish it.
Pae’s views on homosexuality are not unusual; they may even be held by most South Africans. Human rights groups on campus had an opportunity to educate the public about constitutionalism in a secular state, and about diversity. But they did not take it. it would have been helpful to point out in response to Pae that religious dogma cannot dictate court decisions in secular states such as South Africa, which recognised same-sex marriage in 2006, or the US. Under our Constitution, the state may not unfairly discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This, not religious opposition to gay marriage, is what informed South Africa’s recognition.
Pae seems to follow a particularly conservative strain of Christianity. There are many mainstream Christians and Christian groupings who strongly support same-sex marriage. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said: “Rejecting gays and lesbians as the children of God must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.”
And even Christians who might object to same-sex relationships would admit that marriage offers all couples, irrespective of their composition, important legal security in times of disability, death, the supervision of children, and separation and divorce. Equality in marriage sends a message to same-sex people that they are equal under the law, and it reaffirms their dignity. It also sends a message that South Africa is committed to tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity, values that should make some of the awful oppression and conflicts north of our border impossible.
A friend urged me to feel heartened by the student body’s response to Pae’s homophobia. The argument was that this shows how attitudes to gays and lesbians have progressed. Perhaps, but I’m unconvinced. Anti-intellectualism and intolerance, even in the service of views one supports, is cause for worry, not celebration. And while it is certainly easier to be openly gay on campus today than in decades past, UCT has a long history of effective (albeit sporadic) gay rights advocacy going back to the 1980s. What we’ve seen in response to Pae are expressions of anger, pain and irrationality, rather than reasoned argument, public advocacy and effective activism. The obvious argument in favour of expelling Pae from the SRC is the comparison to racism: what if this had been said about another race, rather than same-sex relationships.
Actually, my answer is likely to remain the same. If an SRC member expresses a racist view, this shouldn’t entail automatic expulsion. Racist speech (and I’m not talking about the crude racism that regularly appears in comments on news sites) pervades our society, and few of us (certainly not I) are immune from holding prejudiced views. When people express views that subtly betray their racial prejudices, the response should not be an automatic resort to punitive and exclusionary measures. Rather, the question should be: Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office? In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia. Pae’s comments should have been challenged and shown to be wrong with reasoned argument. Instead, the response by the SRC to her has been anti-democratic and a worrying deterrent to future expressions of unpopular opinions by SRC members. DM
Geffen is the editor of GroundUp, but the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GroundUp. He helped produce UCT’s first gay and lesbian magazine, OptOut, in the early 1990s, and was actively involved in the campaign for same-sex marriage in South Africa. He is married to a man.
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