A Soft Voice on Gay Rights

South Africa’s government has come under fire from opposition parties and activists for failing to condemn a new wave of homophobic laws in Uganda and Nigeria that mandate jail time for same-sex spouses or those affiliated with gay organizations.

Instead of denouncing fellow African nations for cracking down on their gay citizens, the South African government has decided to use diplomatic channels to “seek clarification” from Uganda and Nigeria. This is the government’s way of saying it wants to use existing diplomatic relationships to quietly talk these countries down from their positions, which have hardened in the face of the widespread condemnation.

Critics of South Africa’s policy argue that it parallels Richard M. Nixon’s “tar baby” and Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policies, during which the United States maintained and strengthened relations with South Africa’s apartheid regime at a time when the liberation movement was demanding that the international community impose sanctions and divest from the country. These detractors expect that a country with South Africa’s history of oppression and its constitutional commitment to upholding human rights of sexual minorities would join the United States, Britain and the European Union in condemning Uganda and Nigeria, and possibly threatening economic sanctions of its own.

Although the government has been pilloried for its silence in the face of legally enshrined homophobia, its stance is actually consistent with how it has approached other issues on the African continent. Indeed, it’s part of the same foreign policy thinking that motivated South Africa to pursue a mediated settlement to end the Libyan civil war in 2011, as well as its ongoing criticism of the International Criminal Court.

The idea of “African solutions for African problems” also undergirds South Africa’s continued engagement with the government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe — seen by many as a diplomatic leper.

As despicable as the Nigerian and Ugandan anti-gay laws are, critics have failed to grasp the government’s broader goal of carving out a role for South Africa as an adversary of imperialism and a champion of human rights on the continent. Such a role has become necessary as leaders of fellow African states grow increasingly, and perhaps rightly, wary of foreign powers sidelining the African Union and appearing to impinge on the sovereignty of African nations.

The intellectual foundations underpinning South Africa’s policies toward the African continent emerged during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. However, Mr. Mbeki’s ideas hearken back to a strong tradition of pan-Africanist thought. In 1959, Robert Sobukwe, founded the Pan-Africanist Congress, which splintered from the African National Congress. He spoke of the geopolitical rivalry among foreign powers to woo the fledgling postcolonial states on the African continent into opposing camps.

Back then, the rival ideologies were Western imperialism and Soviet hegemony. And it was this rivalry that drove the United States’ unconscionable policies toward apartheid South Africa; America feared that the Soviets had already won the hearts and minds of the liberation movement from which the country’s first democratic government would later emerge.

Today, the wooing continues, with Russia’s residual ideological influence waning and China’s growing. Sometimes it is through aid, trade, investment and other sweeteners, and other times it’s through the tough-love sanctions and admonishments. But African countries almost always get the short end of the stick, because they are not being wooed as equals.

South Africa’s decision to engage instead of reflexively joining the chorus condemning Uganda and Nigeria is a sign that it doesn’t want its actions on the global stage to be read as a tacit endorsement of policies promoted by the West (or China). On gay rights, the South African government is once again trying to go against the grain of Western orthodoxy to avoid being dismissed outright by Uganda and Nigeria as tools of Western imperialism.

After all, there is more at stake than just the right of queer and transgender Africans to embrace their sexuality openly. In a country like Uganda, poverty and inequality oppress queer and transgender people, too, as does the lack of a true democracy state, after 28 years of Yoweri Museveni’s autocratic rule. Foreign governments that speak out against the oppression of queer and transgender Africans while uncritically supporting Mr. Museveni’s undemocratic rule are only paying lip service to the cause.

For its part, South Africa at least attempts to promote political, economic and ethical governance through instruments such as the African Peer Review Mechanism and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Both seek to allow Africans the space to find solutions to their own problems, and the effort appears genuine, even if it has so far failed to yield tangible results.

South Africa’s revival of pan-Africanism represents something novel. But it could easily fall by the wayside unless the government is held to account by activists, civil society groups and others who understand the destructive effects of Africans allowing the ideas of others to proliferate unchecked, be they conservative American pastors preaching homophobia or imperial powers.

If properly implemented, South Africa’s attempt to quietly encourage fellow African nations into moderating inhumane policies could achieve results where huffing and puffing by the United States and European governments has failed.

Of course there is many a slip between intention and action. The first test of South Africa’s commitment will come later this year, when it hosts the first regional seminar on the rights of queer and transgender Africans. It could either devolve into an empty talk shop of high-level diplomats that yields nothing, or it could be an opportunity to turn the campaign for queer and transgender rights on the continent into something that will withstand the empty claim that it is merely a form of Western social imperialism.

T.O. Molefe is an essayist, at work on a book on post-apartheid race relations.

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