On the last day of November, South Africa, the economic powerhouse of Africa, became the fifth country in the world to legalise gay marriage. It was a strange move for a country which, in many ways, is intensely conservative socially.
The path to same-sex marriage began in 1994 with the raising of the rainbow flag. The collapse of apartheid was the climax that millions of South Africans had hardly dared dream of. But it brought about not just a political revolution, but a social and moral one as well. The new South Africa needed a new identity and a new style. The teaching of the Dutch Reformed Church, with its strict insistence on predestination and its equally strict moral code, had been discredited. Anything "conservative" meant returning to the years of nightmare.
The 1994 constitution represented therefore an extreme reaction against years of oppression. It banned discrimination not only on grounds of race, but also religion, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation — the first in the world to do so. It did not take long for the issue of gay marriage to emerge.
In July 2002, the High Court ruled that denying same sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. In November 2004, the Supreme Court of Appeal declared that marriage laws must include partners of the same gender. Finally, the Constitutional Court ruled in December 2005 that the exclusion of same-sex marriage "represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples." It set down that the law had to be changed within a year.
A first draft of the new law proposed a civil union, just short of marriage. This satisfied no one. Supporters of traditional marriage values held massive demonstrations, while gay rights groups criticised it for creating a kind of sexual apartheid. A second draft followed the Constitutional Court’s instructions more closely. This was passed in the National Assembly on November 14, with 230 voting for and 41 against. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka signed it into law on November 30. South Africa has joined the exclusive club of nations where same-sex marriage is legal, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada.
The rest of Africa was full of horror, not admiration, at the Rainbow Nation’s progressive stance. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the parliament is even considering measures to send anyone connected with a same-sex marriage to jail for five years, in addition to banning gay clubs, publicity, shows, organisation and so on. But South Africa is quite different from the rest of Black Africa. Its culture and ethos are oriented towards the Western and Europe. Although the blacks form the majority of the population, because of the years of apartheid they have been sidelined economically, politically and culturally. As a result, many Africans have interpreted the new law as an extension of Western influence. A leading Zimbabwean historian, Phathisa Nyathi, questioned whether it represented progress for Africa.
"The mere fact that South Africa is more gay than other African countries, shows just how much white influence is in that country. South Africa is certainly leading the way in Africa. But leading where to? It is clear whose values are being promoted here. In the First World, there is nothing wrong with being gay. It is just part of what they call freedoms."
Other African countries are not likely to follow South Africa’s lead. African Anglicans, for instance, are so opposed to the ordination of an American homosexual as a bishop that they may secede from the Anglican communion. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, caused a furore in the West when he described gays as "worse than pigs". In most of Africa he was applauded. Didymus Mutasa, Zimbabwe’s Minister of State Security, took time out of a meeting of defence ministers to lecture his South African counterpart on the issue
"Recently you passed legislation to allow men to marry other men and women other women… I find that very difficult… because, how can I be attracted to another man sexually? How will women view me afterwards? Our president does not like it and when he spoke against it, he was not speaking for himself alone but for all of us."
Amongst Muslims, attitudes are not much different. An Islamist leader in Mogadishu, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed described the new law as "a foreign action imposed on Africa". A Tanzanian taxi-driver in Dar es Salaam, said it was so immoral that it meant the world was coming to an end, because man was going against God’s teaching.
The Bantu and Nilotic languages of East Africa do not have a word for "homosexual". In Kiswahili (which is Bantu and Arabic) the word "shoga" is the closest. But this means a catamite, and is used as a serious insult and not in its strict sense. Until recently most Africans had not heard or seen the word "homosexual". Although homosexuality is being described as a taboo, taboos have a purpose, many Africans feel. They were introduced to preserve the cohesion of a community and prevent its moral and social disintegration; they were not meant to prevent people from using their freedom responsibly, but rather to help them do so.
Nonetheless, the ripples of South Africa’s decision will be felt throughout the continent. Many Christians argue that homosexuality is un-African, not unchristian – and herein lies a danger. As African traditional values disappear with urbanisation, leaving many culturally adrift, moral criteria and perceptions may change.
Recently urbanised Africans, especially the younger generation, out of touch with their roots, cultural and religious, have begun to adopt Western ways, sometimes unconsciously. As more and more migrate to the cities and eventually join the middle class, they become cut off from their ancestral traditions. This could mean in future a two-tiered society: a majority who are poor, traditional and still fighting the elements; and a small but growing minority which comes face to face with individualism, family break-ups and the many social challenges associated with wealth and the erosion of the "old ways". In this South Africa is blazing a trail, for better or for worse. The question remains: will the rest of Africa follow, or will the African practical and religious sense help to turn the tide?
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet’s African Contributing Editor. He writes from Nairobi.