The new SA has a different position on everything

including sex

Laws relating to prostitution and homosexuality are no longer enforced and the government has altered it stance on sex. But have South Africans shaken off Calvinistic attitudes? Mark Gevisser reports

WHEN South Africa’s first democratic parliament decided to amend its rules to allow for broader definitions of who could qualify as “spouses” of MPs, it was no minor matter.

“We wanted the people of South Africa to see,“says ANC chief whip Arnold Stofile, “that human interaction cannot be forced into narrow, religious, ceremonial relationships. There are other valid forms of partnership than the traditional Christian heterosexual marriage, and we needed to take note of that. If we are talking about a rainbow nation, we must also accept a rainbow of traditions and a rainbow of norms.”

But does such talk put the ANC-led government far ahead of the people of this socially conservative society when it comes to “moral” issues? Or has South Africa already escaped the shackles of Calvinism to undergo a sexual transformation at least as profound as South Africa’s startling political transformation this year?

Let’s look at the evidence. Gauteng Minister for Safety and Security Jessie Duarte opened a gay film festival with an impassioned call for gay equality; she has also spoken out publicly in favour of legalisation of prostitution.

National Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi too has indicated that he would support the decriminalisation of prostitution—as has Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma, who has approved a national Aids plan which calls for the earliest possible decriminilisation of both prostitution and homosexuality.

Even Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi has climbed aboard the social reform express: “Never again in this country,” he pronounced, “will anyone decide what other intelligent and rational beings may or may not read, watch or hear.” An 11-member task group has recommended that the Publication Control Act is unconstitutional: it will be replaced, early next year, by a sweeping new Bill that will provide for outright banning only in four areas: child pornography, bestiality, extreme violence and religious hatred.

Perhaps it’s not that significant that Hustler magazine is using the “freedom of speech” argument as a handy rationalisation for the purveyance of flesh; or that there are brothels in mansions all over the Johannesburg’s northern suburbs; or that you can shop by phone for the blue-video—or masseur—of your choice through The Star’s classified section.

Far more significant is the fact that, even though the laws that police sexuality—the anti-gay laws, the anti-porn laws, the anti-prostituion laws—still remain on the books, there has been, since the election, a near- total breakdown in their enforcement. And so, through evolution as much as through active social engineering, society begins to change and accommodate diversity.

Even the police seem to have calmed down: one of the reasons why the sex industry is booming is the authorities have stopped attempting to police it.

The ministerial directive from Mufamadi is for police commanders on the ground to use their discretion when applying laws still on the books that might be unconstitutional. In the meanwhile, the South African Police Service (SAPS) is instituting a training programme in human rights, called “diversity”, which aims to reorient the police services towards a human rights culture.

SAPS spokesman Warrant Officer Andy Pieke explains the drop in sexual policing as follows: “The police services have begun to prioritise. We have come to realise that arresting prostitutes, for example, does not solve the problem. It seems far more important for us to concentrate on the enormous drug problem. So we act only on complaint. If someone is minding there own business and not disturbing anyone, we’ll let them be. “

Likewise, the regulatory censorship apparatus has adopted a laissez-faire attitude. According to senior media lawyer Lauren Jacobson, “the Publications Appeal Board has accepted the argument that it has to factor in the constitution and the Bill of Rights, and this is beginning to create a coherence, resulting in the unbanning of material that a year ago would have been unthinkable. Very little has been banned since the election—only hard-core porn involving sexual violence.”

Look at a film like Natural Born Killers. In Britain it caused a furore and was banned. Here it slipped through with an under-18 restriction.

But civil libertarians should not get too excited by the seeming ease with which South Africa’s draconian sex laws are being made redundant. If the submissions to the task group on censorship are anything to go by, there is the growing possibility for a South African moral majority to form around fundamentalist religious positions: most of the 2 000 received were virulently in favour of retaining strict censorship. While this might not be an indicator of public opinion, it is certainly a signal that the “moral right” is beginning to organise.

One task group member notes that: “Perhaps we haven’t seen a political movement form around these issues because the government has been doing all the work, in its paternal way, for ages. But I am sure that if the government becomes anti-censorship, you will begin to see a strong grassroots pro-censorship movement in reaction.”

That, the member feels, is “healthy”, because communities will begin to set their own standards rather than simply submitting to a national fiat about what can and can’t be read or seen or done. In the Bluff in Durban for example, the community boycotted a cafe earlier this year for stocking Penthouse.

The fear of many in the government, though, is that the ANC’s progressive social agenda will ultimately leave its constituency behind. The first fight will be over the new censorship legislation, called the Film and Publication Bill, next year.

This, notes a parliamentarian, “will give us a sense of how far we can go. I can assure you that if there is bad press about liberalising censorship, you will not see the legalisation of prostitution.”

Meanwhile, we live in an interregnum between new regulation and old. And because nobody really knows how to balance the statutes with the constitution—and also, perhaps, because the old sexual police have lost their will to rule—we live in an umprecedentedly open society.

Where else in the world would you find an outspoken gay activist heading a sensitive commission of inquiry into the arms industry and being appointed, without public outcry, to the supreme court?

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