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Govt criticised for silence on anti-gay legislation

The General Council of the Bar of South Africa (GCB) on Tuesday decried the South African government's silence on the passing of anti-gay legislation in Nigeria, and the mooted passing of similar legislation in Uganda.

The GCB called on South Africa to join Western nations in condemning "state-sanctioned homophobia" on the African continent. 

"The GCB notes with concern recent reports of state-sanctioned intolerance of gay people in Africa [including in Nigeria and Uganda] and its consequences," said GCB chairperson Ishmael Semenya SC.

Nigeria passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act on January 7, sparking condemnation from the United Nations, Europe and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Act threatens penalties of up to 14 years in jail for gay marriages and 10-year prison terms for those found guilty of belonging to gay clubs, societies or organisations.

Hundreds of arrests have reportedly been made since the passing of the law, with fears of an increase in persecution and violence among gay people.

Meanwhile, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign a similar Bill that would see homosexuals jailed for life. However, his rationale was reportedly that there were "better ways to cure the abnormality".

SA response
The South African government, via the department of international relations, was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Semenya said South Africa's Constitution "implored" it to ensure the advancement of equal rights internationally. 

"Our Constitution, which entrenches human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms as well as non-sexism as core values, implores the government to uphold and respect such values, not only domestically, but also internationally," he said.

"The GCB decries this position. No-one should be punished or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or association. South Africa is rightly seen as a beacon of hope for the advancement and protection of human rights around the world – including the rights of gay, lesbian, transgendered and intersex people."

"The GCB calls on the government to live up to this reputation, to set the right example to its own citizens and to the rest of the world, and to condemn anti-gay legislation and practices wherever they exist."

In its 2014 world report released earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused South Africa of playing an important but "inconsistent" role in advancing the rights of LGBT people internationally.

The group said while South Africa faced many domestic challenges, including the rape and murder of lesbians and transgender men, it was "instrumental" in introducing a "precedent-setting" resolution at the United Nation Human Rights Council in 2011.

The resolution committed to combating violence and discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"But [South Africa] have not played a decisive role on this issue at the UN since then," the HRW said.

At the launch of the world report in Johannesburg earlier this month, Graeme Reid, director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights programme at the HRW, said what was perceived as a wave of homophobia sweeping across the continent was often the result of inept governments attempting to distract from their own failings.

"You can almost tell an election cycle in Zimbabwe by the intensification of state-sponsored homophobia," Reid said.

He said state-sponsored homophobia was almost always an indicator of political instability and economic problems.

He cited an example in Cameroon, where a man was jailed for three years for sending a text message to another man, saying: "I think I've fallen in love with you."

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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