EXCLUSIVE: FIDDLING WHILE LGBTIS ARE MURDERED
Mon, 2 July 2012
It's been over a year since the LGBTI crimes task team – technically the “Gender and Sexual Orientation based Violence Task Team” - was announced, but the attacks on gays and lesbians continue unabated whilst the team has remained invisible. In the last month alone there have been at least three reported murders of LGBTI people in South Africa with little sign of the crisis abating.
So what has the team actually accomplished and why has it been so silent and inactive in the face of this brutality against our community? Has the team been a resounding failure and does in fact even still exist?
Mambaonline approached a number of players with these questions, and, for the first time, both government and LGBTI civil society groups opened up about where things stand and what the team is doing.
A source told Mambaonline that to understand the status quo, one needs to go back to the formation of the task team. In early 2011, the South African government came under increasing pressure to take action against the spate of corrective rape attacks against lesbian women.
A small community based group in the Western Cape, Luleki Sizwe created an online petition calling on the government to fight the attacks on lesbians. Almost 200,000 people signed on and the petition led to international headlines. It was an embarrassment for the government, and steps were quickly taken to change perceptions.
Members of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development met with Luleki Sizwe and, in May 2011, a special hate crimes task team, consisting of government departments, independent bodies and civil society groups was announced, complete with photos of Luleki Sizwe's founder Ndumie Funda and Department of Justice representatives working hand in hand.
While the task team was originally formed to deal primarily with “corrective rape” it soon changed its focus to “gender and sexual orientation-based violence against LGBTI persons”.
Most LGBTI groups were taken by surprise by the formation of the task team, which was announced without discussion or consultation with them. Few among the public were aware that a number of groups had been in discussion with government on the issue and were already lobbying for hate crimes legislation behind the scenes.
Sources told Mambaonline that, while there was some genuine concern about the issues, the creation of the team was largely a hurried public relations exercise by the government to save face internationally. As such, it was not properly thought out, no structures were in place and the task team didn’t have defined goals and objectives.
The result has been that the hastily conceived team has spent much of its existence coming to grips with how it should work and what it should do, instead of taking action. Concern by civil society groups over the lack of broad representation on the task team also emerged early on.
“We wish to express our concern about the manner in which the idea of the task team has come to be proposed, and the exclusion of most civil society from the conversations leading up to the task team,” said 17 organisations in a letter to the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development at the time.
According to the Department of Justice these issues in large part led to the task team only being properly established in September 2011, now with a much more broad and representative composition.
There were further concerns about how cash-strapped LGBTI groups spread across the country would travel to meetings. Few had funding (a number have closed their doors this year) for flights and the government launched the task team without a budget. A threatened boycott by some groups saw external donor funding finally being sourced by the government.
These stumbling blocks played into preconceptions the two sides of the team had of each other. Government saw civil society groups as unrealistic, untrustworthy and chaotic, while they saw government as arrogant, rigid and ignorant.
"One positive thing about the task team, however," a source said, "was learning how to talk to each other and how to work together. Relationships are being developed." But there has been little evidence of “working together”.
Civil society groups say that the task team "appears to exist in a vacuum" and that its work is not integrated with efforts by government departments on the team.
An example was the Department of Justice independently publishing and distributing a pamphlet on “Frequently Asked Questions about LGBTI”, without consulting the team, at Joburg Pride last year. It contained, according to LGBTI groups, “a number of inaccuracies and misleading information”, and has since been recalled.
The SAPS also independently produced an inappropriate poster to sensitise police staff on LGBTI victims, which depicted a white drag queen. It is apparently now being reworked to be more representative.
The reality is that the civil society groups on the task team have no real power to make the government departments do anything or to hold them accountable; they are in essence little more than consultants.
To-date, the team has also had no independent staff or structures. The members of the team all have day jobs either in government or within their NGOs. LGBTI representatives have often dropped out of meetings or the task team as a whole due to other commitments, lack of resources and in some cases as a result of lost faith in the team's work or suspicion over its motives. (Ironically, Luleki Sizwe has not taken part in the team for some time.)
Scheduling meetings that all the members can attend has also been difficult. Sources cite the dramatic decline in participation by members as being a real threat to the team's work.
According to civil society groups, "some departments have only ever been members of the task team in name only". They note that the Department of Social Development has never attended a meeting, nor has the Department of Health or the Department of Basic Education.
Seven works streams, or subcommittees, were defined by the task team with the intention that they meet and work independently before reporting back to the team. These streams include: research, monitoring and evaluation; policy and legislative review; training and development; prevention and; communication and awareness.
However, with limited capacity and no real framework to guide how the streams operate, little progress has been made in most of these streams. Without resources, all the streams can do is make recommendations. According to sources, only two of the streams have thus far met independently and had any progress to report at the team’s most recent meeting.
The result of all this has been a frustrating paralysis. The Department of Justice, however, cites a number of successes:
• The department is conducting research on cases involving LGBTI people in a number of courts to assess how LGBTI people and cases are perceived, treated and what are the reasons behind delays in these cases.
• The department has held 24 information/ sensitisation sessions countrywide to empower senior court officials, including the judiciary, on LGBTI issues and victims. Through these sessions 1 010 court officials were reached.
• In March 2012, two national conferences for Regional Magistrates and District Magistrates were also held, "mainly to break the stereotypes that are largely influenced by heterosexist beliefs from the bench".
• The work stream responsible for public education and awareness, led by the department, is working on a taxi, bus, and billboard campaign to send out strong messages against homophobic violence. A presentation will be made to the task team at the planned July meeting.
Most people will also not be aware, again due to an atrocious lack of communication, that work is actively being done on hate crimes legislation. The Department of Justice says that it has developed a draft policy on hate crimes, which is being commented on by justice, crime prevention and security departments in government before it is submitted to Cabinet for approval.
Perhaps more promising is that, according to the department, in this financial year, funds have been set aside to employ staff for the task team and that the recruitment process has already been initiated. This could make a significant impact on the team's work.
However, almost the successes spelled out by the department are those of the department and not the task team itself, giving further credence that the task team has had little real impact or any active role in these developments. The task team is bizarrely, for example, not involved in the development of hate crimes legislation.
These efforts by the department (or the team) have also failed to directly address ongoing incidents of hate crimes against LGBTI people on a day to day basis. The Department of Justice admits that the task team has not directly intervened in any hate crime cases since it was created, saying that this is beyond the team’s mandate. However, it’s mandate still remains unclear.
According to a brief sent to Mambaonline by Triangle Project on behalf of some civil society representatives, the initial 'terms of reference', which are meant to define the role of the task team, have never been signed. Efforts to redefine and agree on the terms of reference at a meeting in June failed.
The recent June meeting was reportedly very poorly attended and none of the promised preparations and or deliverables were in place.
The brief went on to state: "The last meeting in June left all feeling disillusioned and compromised in that the task team is being represented in the international arena as a success, while internally there are no real interventions and or deliverables to show to date.”
The civil society representatives added: "What is very much needed now is to strengthen representation from civil society, and gather support to engage with and keep government accountable and ensure that the task team has the needed resources and capacity to address gender and sexual orientation based violence and crime against LGBTI persons."
Despite government spin, and some independent efforts by the Department of Justice, the task team is having little real impact on hate crimes at this point. The coming months will see if it can take on a real and practical role in solving the growing crisis facing LGBTI people in South Africa or will remain a flaccid public relations exercise to appease the international community.
What is required is continued pressure both on government and civil society groups to put an end to the cycle of bureaucracy, unproductive meetings and behind closed doors discussions. And, task team or no task team, we must demand that government fulfill its duty by playing an effective and public role in dealing with LGBTI hate crimes. And it needs to do so now. Its LGBTI citizens’ lives are literally on the line.
LGBTI groups and others originally involved in the Task Team included: Triangle Project; Free Gender; Luleki-Sizwe; Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW); Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA); Hate Crimes Working Group/UNISA; Lesbian and Gay Equality Project; Behind the Mask; Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), Treatment Action Campaign (TAC); One-in-nine Campaign; Human Rights Watch.
Government departments originally involved in the Task Team included: National Department of Justice and Constitutional Development; National Prosecuting Authority; South African Police Service; National Department of Social Development; National Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities; National Department of International Relations and Co-operation.
Chapter Nine Institutions originally involved in the Task Team included: Commission on Gender Equality, SA Human Rights Commission and SA Law Reform Commission.
Please note shifting membership over time, with some groups such as Free Gender and WLC formally stepping down.