In the midst of a particularly difficult time for politics, society, crime – the world, really – a good thing happened last month, just before the 16 Days of Activism (against violence against women and children) began. I’m going to try and cling to that for a while.
At a sitting of the UN General Assembly on 21 November, South Africa was one of the countries who voted in favourof allowing Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN’s first independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, to continue his work.
The vote was particularly significant because it went against a resolution put forward by the African Group to have Muntarbhorn’s activities suspended.
Same-sex relations are outlawed in at least 34 African countries, and punishable by death in Mauritania, Sudan, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia. (Keep in mind that in countries where such laws have been abolished, society hasn’t necessarily become more welcoming and many LGBTI people may prefer to remain closeted for safety reasons.)
Read more: 3600 panties project aims to expose SA’s gargantuan rape problem
As a continent, Africa is still massively homophobic, and South Africa does not always speak out against the human rights violations committed by its neighbours.
We abstained from the vote to appoint Muntarbhorn and did not distance ourselves from the letter that accompanied the African Group’s resolution.
That letter was quite something, by the way. Their objection was twofold: One, that the UN is “seriously [jeopardising] the entire international human rights framework”, because they’re focusing on “certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviours”, while ignoring other forms of intolerance and discrimination elsewhere, thereby creating divisions.
Two, the African Group feels that the UN is meddling in their personal business — they consider LGBTI rights to be within the domestic jurisdiction of states.
“More importantly, it arises owing to the ominous usage of the two notions: sexual orientation and gender identity. We wish to state that those two notions are not and should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.”
In other words, these countries do not believe that LGBTI rights are human rights.
It is horrifying that South Africa did not speak out initially against the state-sanctioned hatred embedded in this letter. Maintaining good relations with the neighbours is one thing; failing to uphold our Constitution is quite another.
Read more: Are we our own oppressors?
As a country, we have done well in the in the fight for LGBTI rights: Our Constitution is exemplary and we were one of the first countries in the world to legalise same-sex marriage (and it is important to note that the ANC ordered its MPs to vote in favour of that bill, over a decade ago).
And yet, despite all these good actions, another black lesbian activist was murdered in the middle of another 16 Days campaign. Noluvo Swelindawo, who died of a gunshot, is the latest in a years-long list of black lesbians targeted in hate crimes.
The violence, which includes “corrective rape”, is often brutal, with some victims being beaten to death.
We need to be much more vocal in calling out our neighbours on their bad behaviour. We also need to target this unforgiveable violence in a visible, effective way. We need the political will to make South Africa a safer place for those of us who are not straight men.