News / Africa

Challenges Remain for LGBT in South Africa

A woman holds her hands up during the Durban Pride parade where several hundred people marched through the city center in support of gay rights, July 30, 2011 file photo.
A woman holds her hands up during the Durban Pride parade where several hundred people marched through the city center in support of gay rights, July 30, 2011 file photo.
A few weeks ago, the first traditional Zulu gay wedding ceremony was held in South Africa.  The country has one of the most liberal legal frameworks regarding gay rights and protections.  Because of this, South Africa has become a land of exile for many African gays persecuted in their home countries.  But even here, challenges remain as anti-gay attacks still happen. 

Tiwonge Chimbalanga greets people as she walks proudly in the street of her neighborhood near Cape Town.  Everybody knows her around here.  In 2009, while still living in her native Malawi, Tiwonge, who is a transexual woman, was sentenced to 14 years of prison for having held a traditional engagement ceremony with her then-fiance.  Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi, like in 37 other countries in Africa.

So with the help of Amnesty International and the South African NGO Gender Dynamix, she decided to go into exile in South Africa in 2011, she recalls.

Tiwonge says that when she was in Malawi, she thought of South Africa as being a free place for gays.  So when she got here, the one thing that she expected was freedom.

In South Africa, not only is homosexuality allowed, but lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders (LGBT) also have had the right to marry and adopt children for years.  To this day, it is still the only country in Africa to allow such freedoms.

But everything is not perfect in the rainbow nation.  In fact, attacks against LGBT still happen on a regular basis.  Tiwonge agrees she continues to face challenges.

Tiwonge says about four months after she arrived she was attacked and beaten up, with her money and her passport stolen.  And recently, she was stabbed in the back by some Malawan people.

Her new next-door neighbor, who is from DRC, was kicked out of his apartment and was beaten up when his landlord realized his tenant was gay.

Discrepancies between the legislation and the reality within South African society can be explained by the context in which the current South African constitution was drafted, says Noel Kututwa, Southern Africa director for Amnesty International.

After the white-minority rule ended in the 90s and Nelson Mandela's party took power, a new constitution was drafted with a core focus on equality for everyone, with no exception.

"And as part of the fight for freedom, justice and equality that South Africa went through, the African National Congress, then led by former president Nelson Mandela, was anchored around human rights," said Kututwa.

Kututwa says South Africa's LGBT community was included in that concept of human rights, or rather, was not excluded.  The debate about their rights came later on, when the constitution was already adopted.

"At the time that it was adopted, it was really futuristic," said Kututwa. "It was even going beyond what even the country was even ready for at that time.  And that [became] quite clear when one looks at gay and lesbian rights, that it is a contentious issue.  There are certain sections of the society with the South African society who don't accept those rights."

Tiwonge is now an activist.  She volunteers in an NGO which helps LGBT who apply for exile in South Africa and is in contact with the gay community in Malawi to push LGBT rights forward in her native home country.

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