South Africans are rightly proud of having what is probably the most progressive Constitution in the world. But rights can never be taken for granted — as the saying goes, “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”.
Furthermore, all these rights are part of an interrelated whole. Today we must acknowledge that constitutional rights in general, and some more so than others, are endangered.
Public consciousness is bombarded with manifestations of militarism in public discourse; it is becoming an accepted form of existence. And violent attacks on women, including being stripped for not conforming to norms expected by “repositories of custom”, such as taxi drivers, are simply seen as a part of life.
Among such trends we see increasing attacks on freedom of sexual orientation. This is a central, albeit partially acknowledged, issue in contemporary South Africa. Attacks on and murders of lesbian and gay people are a regular feature of media reportage. How much goes unreported we do not know. It is a wider continental issue, too, as shown by a Ugandan newspaper recently naming 100 gay men and providing their addresses, thus facilitating attacks.
The murders of lesbians, “corrective rape” and other attacks have evoked shock, indifference or silent consent and limited media debate. This leads one to ask a seemingly obvious question: How does one defend and advance constitutional rights to sexual freedom and within which paradigmatic and organisational frameworks?
Some religious and “traditional” authorities, with access to the present political leadership, keep alive the notion of non-heterosexual rights being aberrations. Little protection or support is provided after attacks in communities. Research indicates that the police are unsympathetic and that a range of social services, including sections of the medical profession, are not only hostile but have sometimes endangered lives by “outing” victimised individuals.
In some communities attacks on allegedly deviant sexualities and identities are approved. The ANC, its allies and government have said nothing.
The assault on these rights is partly based on the myth of African heterosexuality — or that of there being no gay or lesbian Africans. This despite the recorded history of a range of sexual practices, as shown in books such as Marc Epprecht’s Heterosexual Africa?
Patriarchy polices heterosexuality, both proscribing any “alternative” sexualities and limiting women to restricted roles. Patriarchy informs the “corrective rape” of lesbians, expressing the “traditional” patriarchal right of access for men to women’s bodies. Patriarchy also links attacks on “alternative” sexualities to notions of masculinity: “real men” don’t “do” non-heterosexual sexualities. Most boys learn this from an early age.
Violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed (LGBTI) individuals is part of such patriarchal masculinity.
Securing freedom of sexual orientation requires a resort to history, showing the fallacy of any argument that heterosexuality is a universal historical practice. The law must be deployed, though that is costly and risky, and may invite further attacks. Hence, organisation is crucial, plus a process of engagement even with those who may make the most extreme statements such as those equating homosexuality with bestiality. The objective has to be not to suppress anti-LGBTI views but to win the battle of minds.
Some rights in the Bill of Rights are more equal than others. We need to argue for the indivisibility of our freedoms; they need to be a wider part of public consciousness. Freedom of sexual orientation and freedom from racism are equally human rights and this must be firmly inserted into public debate. Rights are not subject to dichotomies or hierarchies; they are all interrelated.
Raymond Suttner is a Unisa professor and the author of KwaZuma and Beyond, to be published by Jacana early in 2011