Malawi's shift on gays could save the canary
The announcement by Malawi's justice minister this week that the country would suspend laws criminalising gay and lesbian people and activity, pending a parliamentary review, stands out on a continent where gay rights are either ignored or deliberately limited.
In February this year, the former first lady of Liberia introduced a Bill to the Liberian Parliament that would make homosexuality a first-degree felony. Uganda's anti-gay Bill, which has caused controversy since 2009 because it suggests the death penalty for homosexuality, has been reintroduced to its Parliament.
Egypt, Cameroon and many others continue to arrest homosexuals regularly. Last year, Nigeria passed a Bill outlawing gay groups, activism and marriages (not that gay marriages were legally sanctioned in the first place). Nigerian senator Baba-Ahmed Yusuf Datti of the opposition party Congress for Progressive Change, which also supported the legislation, said bluntly: "Such elements in society should be killed."
Sometimes it seems that the only legislation all parties in an African Parliament can agree on is one that persecutes gays and lesbians.
Such homophobia goes back to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's outburst in 1994, when he said that homosexuals were "worse than dogs and pigs" and "a scourge planted by the white man on a pure continent". The discourse of homosexuality as "unAfrican" and even a colonial import has spread around the continent and led to increased persecution.
Malawi's statement will please international donors and governments, many of whom view gay rights in the light of the "canary theory": like the canary in the mines of old, anti-gay legislation is the first warning sign of further attacks on human rights generally.
Certainly, in Mugabe's case, 1994 was a harbinger of new repressive measures in Zimbabwe, many saw it as an attempt to distract attention from government corruption and unde-mocratic practices.
Namibia's then-president Sam Nujoma began to bad-mouth homosexuals in 1996 when unemployment in the country reached about 60% and opposition parties stepped up pressure on the government. Soon thereafter, Nujoma began his campaign for a constitutional change that would allow him three presidential terms.
In South Africa we have a progressive Constitution that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but lesbians, gays, transsexuals and intersexed people are subjected to horrendous violence. Soccer star Eudy Simelane, gang-raped and murdered in 2008 in KwaThema, was just one of about 30 cases of "corrective rape" and murder reported over the past half-decade.
At the United Nations, where there has been a push to include sexual orientation in constitutional and legal protections and to extend these throughout Africa, South Africa has vacillated. At first it sided with African and Islamic countries that would not countenance such a move. More recently, the department of international affairs has said that it will be led by South Africa's Constitution and has endorsed UN moves to push for protection for gay and lesbian citizens.
Greeted with cautious optimism by international human-rights bodies, Malawi's move towards decriminalisation signals a new take on governance in that country. It may not be about gay rights as such so much as it is about projecting an image of enlightened leadership as Joyce Banda consolidates her leadership in the country. Her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, was moving in an increasingly autocratic and unconstitutional direction when he died earlier this year.
Banda has proved to be both shrewd and tough, making popular moves such as reducing her own salary and getting rid of government-owned luxury vehicles while telling Malawians that economic reconstruction will take time. It seems unlikely, in the light of social attitudes expressed elsewhere across the continent, that she imagined a repeal of anti-gay laws would be an immediately populist move. It seems, then, that she and her new government did this purely on principle - which would be remarkable in itself.
Of course, debate will still take place, inside and outside Parliament, and these laws are not yet gone from Malawi's statute books. But there is at least a chink of light now for harassed gay and lesbian Africans - and open, honest discussion can begin to take place.