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South Africa’s queer foreign policy: The failed bastion of African human rights


Giuseppe Rajkumar Guerandi is a Journalism Honours student at Stellenbosch University, with an undergraduate degree in International Studies. They are an aspiring journalist and writer with a passion for queer politics, feminist theory and debating. They pride themselves in being a half-Indian, half-Italian, non-binary South African, with hopes of expanding the platform for marginalised stories and furthering South Africa’s stake in broader international relations.

South Africa has been a trailblazer on the continent and the world in its progressive queer-related legislation. It is tragic, then, to see the overwhelming dissonance between these principles on paper and the strategies employed in its largely mute foreign policy.

Trigger warning: reference to the violent event of “corrective” sexual assault is made in this piece despite my awareness that it is an incredibly problematic and inherently oppressive term. This was done purely due to linguistic limitations and for general comprehensibility.

In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to legally enshrine the protection of queer bodies into its liberal, post-apartheid Constitution. In 2006, the nation became the fifth in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, generally considered the entry-level indicator for national progressiveness but revolutionary at the time.

In both legislative realms, and in progressive queer-related legislation in general, South Africa has been a trailblazer on the continent and the world over. It is tragic, then, to observe the overwhelming dissonance between these local pro-queer principles on paper and the strategies employed in its largely mute foreign policy. It is worse, still, to consider that these queer-friendly positions have barely translated into a permeation of the domestic social fabric.

On a continent where 38 out of 55 states criminalise homosexuality and queerness, in some cases with life imprisonment or even capital punishment, South Africa ought to have emerged as a continental force for change, given its deliberate positioning as a beacon for human rights in foreign affairs.

What has materialised instead is a foreign policy that disproportionately favours regional likeability and hyper-sovereignty at the expense of definitive pro-queer activism. As a result, South Africa’s foreign policy after 1994 has predominantly failed to protect and promote queer rights in broader Africa and reflects its own internal deficiencies. This dichotomous mentality is pervasive at every level of the nation, from policymakers to MPs and from citizens to the president.

Displays of this lacklustre queer foreign policy are littered throughout South Africa’s track record after the watershed year that was 2006. The Mbeki administration established an explicit divide between its domestic progressiveness and foreign policy ambitions with regards to the queer question. In 2008, South Africa opposed a UN Security Council resolution that called for the protection of queer people against violence, on the grounds of avoiding a potentially offensive imposition on other African states.

Under the Zuma administration that followed, despite its claims of striving to mould a foreign policy that accurately represents domestic policy, this divisiveness decayed further. In 2010, South Africa opposed a similar proposal in the UN Human Rights Council, with ambassador Jerry Matjila stating that the inclusion of queer people in the categorical framework of groups requiring protection would “demean” victims of racism and “dilute” their protection. He is now the director-general of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco).

Even if the likes of the late Dumisani Kumalo and his UN successor, Matjila could be dismissed as rogue agents of foreign policy, their persistent presence in pulling the levers of South African policy is not anomalistic or esoteric to them.

In 2008, Jon Qwelane wrote an infamous piece in Sunday Sun titled “Call me names but gay is NOT okay”. Despite having been found guilty of hate speech by the Equality Court, Qwelane was promoted to the position of ambassador to Uganda. A few years later Uganda deepened its legislative criminalisation of homosexuality, free of South African condemnation.

If problematic local politicians can ascend to powerful ranks domestically, South Africa’s Constitution and queer community face dire consequences. If the same politicians can then ascend further into the realm of international relations as “punishment” for their queerphobic behaviour, the entire African queer community is destitute by extension.

A more recent showcase of the hypocrisy and general dysfunctionality of South African queer foreign policy occurred in 2016 when the nation abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council proposal to establish an international LGBT watchdog. This necessary policy seemed an intuitive fit for South Africa, given its proud record of pro-queer human rights work. This stance was thus jarring and regrettable, and augmented when the state chose to support an African-led resolution to dismantle the project, claiming infringements on sovereignty and favouring non-interference.

Thereafter, South Africa reverted on its original position altogether. What this instance articulates is the long-running theme of this brand of foreign policy for the nation: an unconsolidated human rights focus. South Africa, despite going to great lengths to position its contribution to international relations as one of expanding human rights protections, chooses to undermine this framework by maintaining friendly relations with queerphobic states such as Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan and Zambia for their utility as “strategic partners”.

Under the Cyril Ramaphosa administration it is unclear whether this trend of quiet diplomacy will be disrupted by active queer foreign policy reformation, although it has remained relatively stagnant. Ramaphosa is a promising catalyst for this overdue change, having written South Africa’s original protections for sexual orientation into the new Constitution and being the first president to palpably support the queer community.

He has already approved the Civil Union Amendment Act to rectify important inconsistencies in that original national legislation which obstructed same-sex marriage, and with Lindiwe Sisulu, a vocal supporter of the queer community in his Cabinet, this administration is promising. Only time will tell if it possesses the backbone to consolidate a foreign policy scheme that has for too long been in limbo at the expense of queer protection.       

Despite the relative peaks, albeit few and far between, in this timeline of events for South African queer foreign policy, it is precisely because of this quiet diplomacy that the nation personifies such a damaging false promise. Quiet, mediatory diplomacy, flippantly passive strategies, and erratic, contradictory internal politics all come at an immense cost, not least to queer Africans.

One such cost is the nefarious framing of queer issues emerging within the rhetoric of contemporary African politics. Notions of queerness as an “un-African” Western concept have become increasingly weaponised for queerphobic purposes across the continent. Subsequently, the dismissal of South Africa as an interventionist puppet of the West has seen the nation yield in its foreign policy.

In reality, Africa would do well to remember that the only colonial export it ought to reject is queerphobia itself. In pre-colonial times most African cultures were relatively tolerant of queerness before anti-queer colonial legislation was imposed upon it, either through Christian or Islamic faith bases, and left largely untouched post-independence.

South Africa is therefore in a unique political position, occupying an overwhelming moral mandate, to spearhead an African Renaissance that would truly re-establish the continent’s moral legitimacy and capitalise on its internationally recognised foothold in human rights.

Instead, its foreign policy passivity has further ingrained toxic logical fallacies that relegate the queer experience to turmoil. The real-world implications of this turmoil should not be thought of in purely abstract terms, as exemplified by the horrific wave of “corrective” rapes against queer womxn and transgender men that has gripped the continent, and South Africa particularly, over the past two decades.

The Matjila anecdote is a worrying indicator of this fragility, as African queer politics holds the precarious potential for devolving into an anti-intersectional competition of oppressions that delegitimises the severity of both demographic struggles in the process.

Not only would the problematic notion of monopolies on oppression actively undermine the very foundations of independence movements on which Africa is built, but also the culpability of such an unravelling would be substantially traceable back to South Africa’s callous indifference.

More broadly, the guise of ubuntu and communitarian mutual respect behind which South Africa hides is counterfactual. It is ubuntu, the universal value of personhood and dignity, and Pan-Africanism, which demand that South Africa reform its foreign policy to viscerally meet the plight of queer Africans. Anything less (the status quo) would be a betrayal of self and damnation of the continent. DM


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  • What a succinct account of our token “progressive” legislation. I had forgotten some of the moments of failure which are documented here. A well written and important piece.