As a Democratic Alliance city councillor in Joburg for over four years, Ian Ollis has been one of the most vocal, openly gay politicians in South Africa. He has three degrees in the field of religion and worked as a pastor of a church and the head of a small real estate company, before joining the DA in 2005. Now, he is among the top 12 candidates in Gauteng to go to parliament should the party win the expected votes. Ahead of the April elections we spoke to him about being ‘out’ as a politician.
Why did you decide to be open about your sexuality in your political career when so many choose not to do so?
It was during my career as a church minister that I came out and I never wanted to go back into the closet after that. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, If memory serves correctly, who said something along the lines of: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” The Nazi’s locked him up and he was executed. I realised that by being out, I am not only doing it for myself, but also creating space for others to be who they are.
Do you think it has negatively affected your political career?
I ran for the position of leader of the DA in Johannesburg last year and lost only by four votes. Who knows how many votes I would have received if I was not gay. It really is impossible to say. Some think that it does negatively affect my political career. However, even if it limits my career, it must be done.
Have your constituents ever expressed a problem with your sexuality?
I am fortunate enough to serve in a very liberal part of South Africa, which has meant very few comments. Any issues with my sexuality have been said quietly, and never directly or in public. I am not the first gay politician in South Africa, just the most open about my sexuality.
Have you ever felt under pressure from your party to be more discreet about it?
The party has never asked me to do that. A senior colleague recently said to me that he supports me because I don’t try to hide who I am. He respects honesty more than political correctness. Helen Suzman once asked me whether I had a boyfriend. I replied by asking if her grandson was available? She laughed and took it in good humour.
How many gay people are on the party’s parliamentary list and where are you on the list?
There are five gay and lesbian people in the top 20 on the DA’s Gauteng parliamentary list – that’s 25% of the top 20. This includes people like Mike Waters, our national health spokesperson, myself and another three. I am in position 12. On the DA’s provincial list for the Gauteng legislature, we have Paul Willemburg, currently an MPL and again a candidate for the April 22 list. In the city of Johannesburg, the DA currently has four gay councillors that I know of – including Nico De Jager and Paul Smit – and a number in the Pretoria City council also – as well as parliamentary lists from other provinces like the Western Cape and so on.
How many do you think will make it to parliament?
From Gauteng, I expect all five of us will be elected to parliament and perhaps the same number from the other provinces. The DA has outdone itself with gay candidates this year!
Is this a good reason to vote for the DA?
We vote for a cluster of things when we choose a party, not just whether or not it has gay politicians. However, when you look at our record of voting and the number of us who are fighting for your rights out there, yes, this is the party to vote for. I can’t think of a single other party who has been prepared to name gay candidates publicly. Effectively this interview is a first in South African politics!
How important do you think the gay vote is in SA?
I think it represents about eight percent of the vote. We’d love another eight percent of the seats in Parliament and all nine provinces.
What are your thoughts on the government refusing to sign the declaration against the criminalisation of homosexuality at the UN in December last year?
It’s of course quite unacceptable. It’s such a pity that government had to be forced by the constitutional court to change the marriage act. I have the feeling that many politicians in the country are still very conservative in their beliefs.
“We need to ensure that gay people remain in government and that they are not afraid to speak out…”
Would a DA-led government have signed on to the declaration?
The DA supports the constitution. The constitution requires us to support rights for women, LGBTI people, people of all race groups and so on. So we would support human rights in countries, such as China, where human rights are a problem, and yes, I am convinced that the DA would support gay rights outside of the country also.
How do you feel that our government has generally handled the issue of homosexuality?
It succeeded in upholding the decriminalisation of homosexuality. It succeeded in allowing us the right to marry. It however had to be pressured by the courts, and that is unfortunate. I also wonder if gay and lesbian people, particularly in poor communities have adequate protection from violence. I was quite surprised recently to inspect the Parkview Police Station in Johannesburg where an additional holding cell has been created for gay and lesbian people – it’s marked on the door.
What else needs to be done?
More could be done in terms of educating people about LGBTI issues, although this is being done in a limited way by the Gauteng education department, for example. This whole idea about it being “un-African” to be gay needs to be debunked by those who would govern South Africa. I have no respect for the likes of Jacob Zuma in this regard. He will get a public tongue lashing from me should he again say anything remotely homophobic.
Are you confident that the rights of gays and lesbians will remain protected in South Africa?
I remain hopeful. It depends really on who gets to govern in the future. We need to ensure that gay people remain in government and we need to ensure that they are not afraid to speak out where necessary.
Is there someone special in your life at the moment?
Not at the moment. I broke up with my previous boyfriend in 2005. I’ve been single since I entered politics actually. If I go on a blind date and it doesn’t work out, you can bet that half the town will hear about it, so it does make dating difficult.
What do you do for fun or to relax in your free time?
I read and write. I watch most movies on the circuit and occasionally go horse riding or ice skating. I’m very bad at the latter, but it’s worth a good laugh!
You played a role in Joburg Pride in 2007 and will be on the board again this year. Do you think the city of Joburg gives enough support towards Joburg Pride?
The City does support pride, without making too much of it. An old building in downtown Joburg that the Gauteng Provincial Government wanted to demolish has been saved because of its historical connection as an underground meeting place of gay people during the dark days of Apartheid. We have to be careful about asking the city to put more cash into pride than int