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Homosexuality and the law: a gay revolution in South Africa?

  • A. J. G. M. Sanders


Recent constitutional developments in South Africa and political statements by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe have brought to the fore the issue of social tolerance of homosexual conduct. It is a sensitive issue, and is approached in this article from a legal anthropological angle. A distinction is drawn between situational same-sex activity and a gay lifestyle. Although both constitute homosexual conduct, situational same-sex activity need not imply a gay lifestyle, or even a homosexual orientation.



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1 Cf. R. Holmes, “The Winnie Mandela trial and the politics of race and sexuality”, in M. Gevisser and E. Cameron (eds.), Defiant Desire—Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, 1994, 284–294.

2 Weekly Mail and Guardian (South Africa), 4–10 August 1995; The Citizen (South Africa), 22 August, 1995; for more particulars see “Zimbabwe—the book fair drama” in C. Dunton and M. Palmberg, Human Rights and Homosexuality in Southern Africa, Current African Issues no. 19, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, June 1996, 8–17. A year later the drama repeated itself. This time the Zimbabwean government used its Board of Censors to prevent a book display by the Gay and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe. When the Zimbabwean High Court allowed the association to display civil rights pamphlets, demonstrators forced members of the association to abandon their booth at the book fair and set fire to their literature: “Gay bashers threaten book fair”, Mail and Guardian, 2–8 August, 1996; “Zimbabwe gays flee mob”, Sunday Times, 4 August, 1996.

3 The Citizen, 28 November, 1995; Weekly Mail and Guardian, 5–11 January, 1996. Cf. also Drum (South Africa), October 1995.

4 Cf. Boswell, J., Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 1980.

5 Cf. Th., Fitzgerald, K., “A critique of anthropological research on homosexuality”, (1997) 2, 4 Journal of Homosexuality 385—397;Adam, B.D., “Age, structure, and sexuality: reflections on the anthropological evidence on homosexual relations”, (1985) 11, 3–4 Journal of Homosexuality 1933;Blackwood, E. (ed.), The Many Faces of Homosexuality—Anthropological Approaches to Homosexual Behaviour, 1987;Greenberg, D.F., The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988, ch. 2;Dynes, W.R., “Homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa—an unnecessary controversy”, in W.R., Dynes and S., Donaldson (eds.), Ethnographic Studies of Homosexuality, 1992, 166–67.

6 “Sexual inversion among the Azande”, (1970) 72 American Anthropologist 1428–1434, reprinted in Ethnographic Studies of Homosexuality, n. 5, 168—174.

7 Cf. J.F. Faupel, African Holocaust—The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, 1962 (revised ed. 1984); Rowe, J.A., “The purge of Christians at Mwanga's court. A reassessment of this episode in Buganda history”, (1964) 5, 1Journal of African History 5572; Apter, D.E., The Political Kingdom in Uganda, 2nd ed., 1967, ch. 3;Lowe, D.A., “Converts and martyrs in Buganda”, in C.G., Baëta (ed.), Christianity in Tropical Africa, 1968, 150164;Anderson, W.B., The Church in East Africa 1840–1974 1977, ch. 3. Note that anthropological studies of this episode in the history of Africa are sorely lacking.

8 Faupel, op. cit., 125.

9 The rise of the Zulu empire”, (1960) 202, 4Scientific American 152169.

10 Cf. Fernandez, J.W., “Bantu brotherhood: symmetry, socialization and ultimate choice in two Bantu cultures”, in Hsu, F.L.K. (ed.), Kinship and Culture, 1971, 339366.

11 Cf. Junod, H-A., The Life of a South African Tribe, 2 vols., 2nd ed., 1927;van Onselen, C., Chibaro. African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1976, paperback ed. 1980, 174182;Dunbar Moodie, T., “Migrancy and male sexuality on the South African gold mines”, (1988) 14, 2 Journal of Southern African Studies 228256;Harries, P., “Symbols and sexuality: culture and identity on the early Witwatersrand gold mines”, (1990) 2, 3 Gender and History 318336;Ndatshe, V. and Sibuyi, M., “Love on the mines”, in Krouse, M. (ed.), The Invisible Ghetto—Lesbian and Gay Writing from South Africa, 1993, 44—64; for same-sex prostitution on the mines, cf.McLean, H. and Ngcobo, L., “Gay sexuality in Reef townships”, in Gevisser and Cameron, op. cit., 158–185, at 162–168 and 175177.

12 Junod, op. cit, vol. 1, 493.

13 Not tolerated on the mines was same-sex activity “across the colour-line”. Cf. Rex v. Goodman 1914 T.P.D. 608; Cunningham v. Cunningham 1952(1) S.A.L.R. 167(C).

14 As quoted by Harries, op. cit., 322.

15 Cf. Rex v. S. 1937 N.P.D. 135; Regina v. M. and Another 1958(2) PH.H. 338(C); see also Rex v. Mateba 1950(2) PH.H. 130 (G.W.); Rex v. Sera and Another 1951(1) PH.H. 15(0); Regina v. Mabana 1954(2) PH.H. 178(T); S. v. M. 1977(2) S.A.L.R. 357 (Tk.); S. v. M. 1984(4) S.A.L.R. 111(T).

16 1988(2) S.A.L.R. 254(T).

17 Gevisser and Cameron, op. cit.

18 Cf. M. Gevisser, “Sexual politics and the politics of liberation”, in ibid., 74—84, and, by the same author, “A chance for SA's gays to grab the constitutional gap”, Weekly Mail and Guardian, 1–7 July, 1994; E. Cameron, “Sexual orientation and the constitution: a test case for human rights”, (1993) 110 South African Law Journal 450–472; C. Dunton and M. Palmberg, “South Africa—the Bill of Rights issue”, in Dunton and Palmberg, op. cit., 28—31.

19 Cf. S. v. A. 1995(2) B.C.L.R. 153(C).

20 Law, morality, and ‘sexual orientation’,” 1994, 69 Notre Dame Law Review 10491076, at 1070.

21 Cf. Sanders, A.J.G.M., “Towards formulating the tenets of a communitarian order”, in Vorster, W.S. (ed.), Building a New Nation: The Quest for a New South Africa, 1991, 178–187, also published in (1992) 16, 2 Legal Studies Forum 145153.

22 Gf. Vivian Warby, “Gay revolution in SA—how position in society has improved”, The Citizen, 5 June, 1996; “Are legal gay weddings next?” Mail and Guardian, 4–10 October, 1996.

* Professor of Law, Vista University, Mamelodi Campus, Pretoria, South Africa.

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Journal of African Law
  • ISSN: 0021-8553
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