Many of the anti-gay laws in Africa have been in place from the time most African countries were under the colonial rule. For instance, homosexuality had been illegal in Botswana since the late 1800s when the country was ruled by Britain.
In 1967, Britain decriminalised homosexuality but the anti-gay stigmas and laws remained in the former colonies. More than half of the countries in the world that criminalised homosexuality were once under the British colonial rule.
South Africa was the first country in the world to protect sexual orientation as a human right in its constitution. South Africa’s constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997, forbid discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality. On 30 November 2006, South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage and is to date the only country in Africa to do so.
Sexual intercourse between men was forbidden in South Africa as the “unnatural sexual offence” and common law crime of “sodomy” under the Roman-Dutch law. LGBT+ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activism was among the many human rights movements in South Africa in the 1970s and the 1980s, with some groups advocating for only LGBT+ rights and others advocating for a wider human rights campaign.
The history of homosexuality in Africa
32 of Africa’s 54 nations have laws that criminalise homosexuality. In some African countries, such as Sudan, homosexuality is punishable by death. Some countries base their decisions to criminalise homosexuality on religious morality and the idea that it is imported from the West.
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe called homosexuality “un-African” and a “white disease”. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has said it is a “western import”.
However, there is evidence collected by anthropologists and other scholars that shows homosexuality existed in Africa long before the continent was colonised.
There are ancient San rock paintings near Guruve in Zimbabwe dating back 2000 years that show detailed scenes between mating males.
Effeminate males in northern Uganda among the Langi people were treated as women and could marry during the pre-colonial times. In Zambia, there are records that show youth and adult men had sexual contact during the circumcision rites of the Ndembu.
In South Africa, the Bantu people, most notably the Ndebele and Tswana people, had traditions of acceptance towards same-sex sexual acts. Homosexuality was not viewed as a direct opposite to heterosexuality in these societies.
Is there any hope for LGBT+ people in other African countries?
Since 2010, several more countries in Africa have decriminalised same-sex marriage. These countries include Mozambique, Angola and Lesotho.
However, there are still many countries in Africa that hold strong anti-gay views. For instance, according to a 2013 Pew survey, 90% of Kenyans said society should not accept homosexuality.
Botswana’s attempt to strike down its anti-sodomy laws failed in 2003 but activists made progress later. In 2010, Botswana changed its employment act to prevent discrimination against LGBT+ people. In 2019, in a major victory for LGBT+ rights campaigners in Africa, high court judges in Botswana ruled against the criminalisation of same-sex relations.
In closing, LGBT+ South Africans may have the same rights as the non-LGBT+ South Africans but they continue to be targets of homophobic violence, particularly corrective rape and murder. Despite these occasional homophobic incidents, LGBT+ people from big cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban are fairly treated and accepted.
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