For more than a month Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba dithered over whether or not to allow anti-gay United States pastor Steven Anderson into the country. Beating a path to his door was a strong lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) lobby. In the end, the decision was an obvious one – he barred the “hate preacher” from obtaining a visa to enter South Africa.
This weekend Gigaba will be given the inaugural Pretoria LGBTI Pride/GaySA Radio Human Rights award.
He spoke to the Mail & Guardian about “the abomination” that is Anderson and his plans to address the challenges faced by South Africa’s LGBTI community in their dealings with the home affairs department.
At one point, there was concern among LGBTI and human rights activists that the decision to bar Anderson wasn’t going to happen. What were the reasons for that?
As a minister, whatever decision you make must be well considered. The law provides that we can stop this person from coming to South Africa and declare him a prohibited person – but I needed to have rational reasons for it.
The team from GaySA Radio and other LGBTI groups presented us with information that was persuasive and led us to the determination that we could not allow this person to come into our country. We took the decision that it would not be in the interest of justice – in the interest of equality and dignity – to allow this person to come into the country.
In June last year, home affairs rolled out a programme to “sensitise” its staff to the needs of LGBTI people. I know it’s early days, but has there been buy-in?
As you correctly say, it is early days. We hope, with time, to make people more open-minded, more sensitive – more willing to conduct same-sex marriages.
How does the department intend going about this?
There are a lot of things you can do. One of the things is to introduce it in the induction programme for all our officials. You engage with the issue there and talk openly.
One of the problems is that same-sex relationships are considered taboo in many environments. You discuss gay people as if – if I can put it bluntly – they are dirty. So you have to deal with all of these misconceptions, these types of backward views. You need to talk with people and engage them to convince them. That’s why we call it a sensitisation programme; you want to expose [employees] to people who are involved in same-sex relationships, so that they realise: ‘But these are ordinary people.’
Mayihlome Tshwete (Gigaba’s spokesperson): We took up 200 more officials this year. So there is a slow uptake, but there is an uptake.
Gigaba: You must also remember that home affairs is a department that used to classify people in order to discriminate. So a lot of those tendencies haven’t really left the department. Even foreign nationals say home affairs officials are xenophobic. So the sensitisation programme was going to deal not only with the induction and educational aspects, it was also going to see different organisations talk to officials within the department.
I know there are many LGBTI people in South Africa who are willing to engage in the most difficult conversations about same-sex relationships … who are willing to engage with people who are homophobic in order to educate them.
LGBTI organisations have complained about how the Civil Union Act of 2006, in allowing officials the right to refuse to officiate same-sex unions, denies LGBTI people the right to dignity. Are there plans to have this clause either amended or removed?
It cuts both ways. The sensitisation programme is going to have to work, but reviewing some of the legislation is one of the topics that we’ve brought to the joint task team we’ve established together with LGBTI organisations.
If we remove the clause, we have to know what we’ll be replacing it with. You don’t want to remove it and then be confronted with a situation where people say: “I’m prepared to go to jail or go to court to fight you for my right to object.” You don’t want to create enmity. Rather win people over.
Look, the NG Kerk itself recently voted for same-sex marriages to be conducted in the church. If that happens, then anything and anybody can change. Actually, when I heard about that, I had hope. Because I know that that discussion within the NG Kerk took a long time. Things like these and the overwhelming support we got after the decision on Anderson says to me that we are heading in the right direction, that the country is going to open up to addressing the challenges faced by LGBTI people.
How do you feel about being given the first Pretoria LGBTI Pride/GaySA Radio Human Rights award?
It’s a tremendous honour. And completely unexpected because, to be honest with you, I was just doing my work – in line with the Constitution, the best values of the ANC and the government.
The thing with Steven Anderson is that nobody has the right to come to our country and spread hatred and social violence. Having him here would have detracted from South Africa’s constitutional values. The things he was saying about gay people, Africans, Jews, Muslims … He’s an abomination, an indictment on our collective human conscience. And I’m glad that the government of Botswana also took the stance they did [in deporting him]. It goes to show that the actions we took in South Africa, in defending the best values enshrined in our Constitution, have influenced other people and other governments in our region.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian