As many South Africans celebrated the home affairs department’s decision to bar anti-gay American pastor Steven Anderson from entering the country, it has been revealed that only 28.6% of home affairs officials are willing to marry same-sex couples.
Activists representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) organisations expressed their “shock and disappointment” after website MambaOnline revealed the statistic.
“We were really not expecting the figure to be this low. We are shocked and really disappointed,” said Lerato Phalakatshela, hate crimes manager at OUT LGBT Well-Being.
The Civil Union Act of 2006 allows marriage officers to object to marrying same-sex couples “on the grounds of conscience, religion and belief”.
Prior to the release of the statistic, LGBTI lobby groups pressured the home affairs department and, in June this year, met with Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba. A task team made up of LGBTI representatives and government officials was consequently established to look at ways of addressing issues LGBTI people face at home affairs offices.
Last week, the team published a list of home affairs offices at which same-sex couples could be married, “to ensure proper and dignified solemnisation of all marriages”.
The team is also tasked with reviewing and identifying gaps in relevant legislation, clarifying the requirements for registering same-sex marriages, ensuring that practice standards are consistently applied at all home affairs offices and improving sensitivity training as well as creating awareness among home affairs staff.
In a statement released on September 6, Gigaba said his department is prioritising “the enforcement of its anti-discrimination and diversity management policy”.
“To raise awareness on sound diversity management, the department will increase the number of officials attending the national certificate: home affairs services skills programme, [which] has as one of its elements improving sensitivity on LGBTI rights. This work is ongoing.”
He added that a note had been distributed to staff providing guidelines on “matters relating to the alteration of sex description and other related civil matters”.
Home affairs spokesperson Thabo Mokgola said the department’s awareness campaign began in June and would continue at ministerial and management levels “to sensitise our officials to the need to treat all our clients with respect – irrespective of sexual orientation”.
Although making the list available would come as welcome news to same-sex couples planning on getting married at one of the country’s 409 home affairs offices, the fact that only 117 of these have officials willing to marry them is, according to task team member Joshua Sehoole, “a huge injustice”.
Sehoole, the regional human rights officer for queer human rights visual media organisation Iranti, said: “When it comes to state employees who are employed with public funds – with taxpayers’ money – extending conscientious objection to them in the execution of their public duties is essentially government-sanctioned discrimination … the [Civil Union] Act, as it currently stands, does not live up to [our Constitution].”
Sehoole said a line has to be drawn when “religious freedoms start to encroach on another person’s rights”.
“We know that there’s a gap between our legislative framework and the feelings of people on the ground. Although, in this kind of case, government has an even bigger obligation to ensure that structurally it does not allow for that kind of discrimination.”
Sehoole said the real issue is a deeper-rooted problem and needs legal reform.
“We made it clear, from the outset, that one of the things we wanted was legal redress and to make a joint submission to the department of justice around what needs to be looked at.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian