LGBTQIA+ in South Africa: The Legacy of Colonialism and Apartheid

Header Image: Pride Flag of South Africa: Htonl [Public domain]

By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

When Apartheid ended in South Africa in the early 1990s, the nation was rapidly plunged into a new era – one which was heralded as the birth of a new democracy. Hand-in-hand with the fall of segregation and racial discrimination, over the following decades in South Africa, the formal rights of LGBT people advanced rapidly. In 1996, the country published its new Constitution, which was the first in the world to protect queer people from discrimination. Following this, LGBTQIA+ activists fought to overturn “sodomy laws”, and in 2006, same-sex marriage became recognised by the state.

However, despite the legal headway, South Africa still has a huge problem with homophobia and transphobia. Only 50.6% of its citizens agree or strongly agree that gay and lesbian citizens should have the same human rights as the rest of the population.  7% of LGBT South Africans have experienced physical violence, and 39% verbal assault, on account of their sexuality. Although these figures have been in gradual decline, some researches fear that overt violence towards LGBTQIA+ people has simply been remoulded into more elusive forms of discrimination like heterosexist attitudes and microaggressions.

Why have the government’s official attitudes towards queerness failed to pervade society as a whole? Why do so many South Africans hold onto intolerant and discriminatory attitudes, the likes of which characterised an era which is now (technically) over?

St Mary’s Church, Capetown  By HelenOnline - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36157120

St Mary’s Church, Capetown

By HelenOnline - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36157120

Homophobia in South Africa is regularly attributed to the influence of the Church. According to a report published by The Other Foundation, the “homophobic interpretations of scripture” and “religiously sanctioned homophobia” present “the greatest obstacle to the full acceptance of LGBTI people in southern Africa”. A study into language used by South African schoolteachers also found that many of these teachers reinforced negative views on homosexuality by associating it with hedonism, sinfulness and moral deviance.

It is certainly true that, during Apartheid, many Christian leaders endorsed the view that untraditional sexual relationships (by European standards) were “sinful”. However, since the 1990s, many aspects of the South African church have undergone a significant evolution. For example, there has been a rise in the popularity of contextual bible study; which encourages reinterpretation of the Bible’s teachings topics such as homosexuality. In fact, there are now a number of Churches in South Africa that declare themselves to be “GLBTI-friendly”.

It is therefore naïve to render the “Church” and “government” as two institutions locked in discrete pro/anti-LGBTQIA+ opposition. Yes, the South African church has room for improvement; but so does the government and legislation.

It turns out that the existing changes to laws and constitution have not been sufficient to tackle queer-discrimination in South Africa. South Africa has legally recognised gay marriage for over thirteen years and yet a large proportion of South African society does not yet see queer people as deserving of equality.

The assumption that recognising gay marriage would legitimise queer existence is evidence that the South African government still centres itself in its European/colonialist traditions and ideologies. Academic Michael W. Yarbrough argues that marriage has a very different meaning in African and European cultures. Yarborough says that, whilst European views on the meaning of marriage have tended to focus on the action of uniting two individuals; in traditional African cultures, marriage was more about uniting families, and pooling resources. As a result, for some South Africans, marriage is seen to be less about romance, and more about practicality. Therefore, having legislature which recognises same-sex married couples does not necessarily entail the acceptance of same-sex relationships as a form of love.

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Colonialist attitudes in South Africa have not only resulted in the assumption/imposition of European tradition, but also European languages.  Writing for The Guardian, South African Lwando Scott talks about how there are “no structures in this country to protect and nurture native South African languages”. This is a problem for queer rights, argues Scott, because native languages like IsiXhosa (first language for 16% of the population) reinforce outdated views on sexuality. For example, in IsiXhosa, gender is often conflated with sexuality, and terms are used which generalise across different types of sexual orientation/gender identity. English and Afrikaans dominate academic and literary texts, whilst native languages like IsiXhosa have been relegated to the side-lines. Scott says this means that there is little scope for them to evolve and adapt to increasingly progressive views on gender/sexuality.

However, the disregard of African tradition and culture are just two factors that contribute to LGBTQIA+ discrimination. It is certainly not the case that black/indigenous South Africans tend have more regressive views on sexuality - some white Afrikaners cite their cultural identity/heritage as justification for their homophobic views. Furthermore, compared to a population average of 39%, white South Africans have a 45% chance of facing verbal abuse over their sexuality. On the other hand, black South Africans are more likely than the general population to experience violent assault due to their sexuality.

The takeaway here is that racism and religion interact with sexual identity in complex ways. The research shows that there has been too much focus on colonial cultural imports as both the cause and solution to homophobia. The ending of Apartheid marked only the beginning of a journey to dismantle the power structures enforced by Apartheid and Colonialism. An ambition to end discrimination was established with the ending of Apartheid, but the work is far from over.