A ruling of hate speech for a derogatory article by South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda, Jon Qwelane, is a “personal matter” that he will have to deal with, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation said on Tuesday.
“Qwelane did the article in his personal capacity before his appointment [as ambassador]. The ruling today is a personal matter he will have to deal with,” said spokesperson Clayson Monyela.
“We have taken notes of the pronouncement and decision of the court. We respect the decision. The South African Constitution is very clear on the rights of gays and lesbians … we will defend their rights in this country,” he said.
Qwelane, a former Sunday Sun columnist, was found guilty of hate speech by the Johannesburg Equality Court on Tuesday.
The court found that an article and cartoon in his column amounted to hate speech, propagating hatred and harm.
As a result of his work, homosexuals had experienced emotional pain and suffering.
The article was published in the newspaper on July 20 2008 under the headline: “Call me names, but gay is NOT okay.” The cartoon equated same-sex relationships with bestiality.
In the article Qwelane refused to withdraw or apologise for his views. He also refused to write a letter to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) explaining his thoughts.
His article caused an uproar among activists, who labelled it “irresponsible” and “inflammatory”.
Then-press ombudsmen Joe Thloloe received more than 1 000 complaints, and the SAHRC more than 300.
The SAHRC initiated court proceedings in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.
On Tuesday, it said it was very happy with the ruling and the court’s orders.
Qwelane was ordered to make an unconditional apology to the gay and lesbian community in the Sunday Sun newspaper and another national newspaper.
He was also ordered to pay R100 000 to the SAHRC for awareness and education of gay and lesbian rights.
No costs were ordered.
“We are quite pleased that the court has found in our favour. .. R100 000 is quite a reasonable amount,” said SAHRC spokesperson Vincent Moaga.
“The focus is not on the money, but the message coming out of this. With recent hate speech and crimes against the community, the court is sending positive messages,” he said.
Qwelane did not make much of an appearance during the course of the trial. He failed to sign court papers presented to him by a clerk and did not file responding papers.
The court ruled that, as it had only one version of the story, the SAHRC’s argument would be accepted.
“From here, we will have to look at the judgment and make sure that Qwelane abides by the court order,” Moaga said.
The South African embassy in Kampala on Tuesday said Qwelane was not available for comment.
The Presidency referred all queries to Monyela. High commissioners are appointed by the president.
Meanwhile, a gay lifestyle website and an advocacy group for the rights of gays and lesbians on Tuesday welcomed the ruling.
“We are happy that he was found guilty of hate speech and fined R100 000, to be given to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex organisations,” Gayspeak SA spokesperson Coenie Kukkuk said.
“When Qwelane equated gay relationships to bestiality, we stood together as a community as never before … It had a galvanising effect on the community — and some very positive repercussions,” he said.
The South African Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (SA Glaad) also expressed “relief and satisfaction” at the verdict.
“We are indeed satisfied with the verdict … and order that he must make an apology to the pink community,” SA Glaad spokesperson Christina Engela said in a statement.
Qwelane’s appointment as ambassador was lambasted by both Kukkuk and Engela, in light of the ruling. Kukkuk said the appointment was a slap in the face to the gay community by President Jacob Zuma, “himself known for his homophobic utterances”.
Engela said it was inappropriate for Qwelane to represent South Africa in a country “where the same groups which bore the brunt of his hate speech are violently oppressed and persecuted”.
Homosexuality was illegal in Uganda, punishable by life imprisonment in some instances. Uganda’s Parliament considered and then shelved an anti-gay Bill that would have imposed the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”.
It was unclear whether the ruling against Qwelane would have any implications on his position. — Sapa