Sixteen Days of Activism against gender violence ends this Tuesday at a poignant time: on International Human Rights Day, the same day South Africa will hold the official memorial service for one of the world’s most respected human rights icons.
Sadly, every call for equality and justice seems so trite and less profound each time, but our walk to gender equality is forced to continue. Ending gender-based violence remains a 365-day struggle.
It is very difficult amidst the premeditation, performativity and soiled attempts to immortalise this demigod, to recover a recognisable Nelson Mandela. In order to learn from his actions and what he stood for, one has to wade through the political and individualistic expediency that underlies the mainstream deluge of veneration, demonstrated by political leaders, corporations and white liberals.
Tributes to Mandela call on us all to emulate him, his convictions and to live out his legacy. But, the world is a far cry from that legacy, when against the backdrop of all this adulation for Mandela, human rights abuses, gender violence, bigotry and inequality continues unabated every day.
I wrote an article recently criticising worldwide state sponsored homophobia, where leaders publically threaten Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex people (LGBTI) with violence, refer to them as a “filthy disease” and “anti-civilisation” and call for their rights to be revoked. Some of the very same ‘leaders’ are pouring out condolences for the late Mandela.
Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe called him a “champion of the oppressed… who will forever remain in our minds as an unflinching fighter for justice.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “Mandela was committed to the ideals of humanism and justice.” South African High Commissioner to Uganda, Jon Qwelane called him a “down-to-earth leader who respected humankind.”
The blatant hypocrisy of these tributes renders them meaningless and rather disrespectful. Similarly, people’s everyday racism, sexism and homophobia is not made invisible, nor is it nullified and legitimised by changing Facebook profile pictures to photos of Mandela.
We can see a similar hypocrisy amongst many gender and women’s rights activists who pursue and perpetuate an exclusionary definition of gender equality and gender violence. The Sixteen Days of Activism campaign continues to overlook the violence perpetrated against the LGBTI, failing to acknowledge how homophobia and transphobia fuel gender violence.
Governments, health practitioners and insurance companies continue to inflict violence every time they tell a transgender person to be diagnosed with a disorder before they can transition.
I will never forget the homophobic vitriol expressed by ‘gender activists’ and women’s league representatives from across the world, when I interviewed them on gender equality, at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW57) in March this year.
Numerous international and regional gender equality instruments make no mention of LGBTI rights as criteria for achieving gender equality.
At the first ever Global Forum on Media and Gender held in Bangkok last week, a participant expressed great disappointment that throughout the conference there was not one reference to the media’s responsibility in portraying just and fair representations of LGBTI people.
I will also never forget the empty apology and subtle threat I received from a well renowned South African newspaper, following my request for an explanation after discovering they had systematically edited out any reference to homosexuality or gender non-conformity in an article I wrote on gender attitudes.
Mandela was not only a proponent of women’s emancipation, but also a champion of LGBTI rights. Activists from across the globe are also paying tribute to the man who led South Africa to become the first country to ban anti-gay discrimination.
In 1996 South Africa adopted the new Constitution and Bill of Rights stating that everyone is equal before the law and “regardless of colour, gender, religion, political opinion or sexual orientation, the law will provide for the equal protection of all citizens.” In 1997 at the ANC’s 50th Congress, the party adopted a resolution opposing discrimination on basis of sexual orientation.
The South African National Coalition of Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) along with other partner organisations continued to work on legal reforms and for the recognition of same sex partnerships and marriage. This became a success in 2006, when parliament passed the Civil Union Bill.
Phumi Mtetwa, who was the co-founder of NCGLE notes, “That is one instance of widely celebrated processes and results attributable to Mandela’s vision of South Africa’s rainbow nation…Mandela became an important icon of the movement. “
Although Mandela made concessions -perhaps too many- and was primarily committed to peace, with violence being the last resort, he was not a pacifist nor was a fan of hypocrisy.
At the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations in 1991, in response to President FW De Klerk’s attack of the ANC and its military wing, Mandela said:
“We suspended the armed struggle in spite of the fact that our people were being killed…He is calling on us to disband Umkhonto we Sizwe, yet hit squads are operating freely in this country. If Mr De Klerk promises to put an end to the violence, then he can come and say: I want you to hand over your weapons to us for joint control. But as long as he’s playing this double game, he must be clear we are not going to cooperate with him.”
Feminists and LGBTI activists are frequently chastised and discredited for being “too emotional” or “too aggressive.” We are encouraged to passively and peacefully stake claim to our rights, while our bodies remain battlefields and gender-based violence reaches pandemic proportions. On the contrary, we are not angry enough. As bell hooks says, when we embrace victimisation we surrender our rage. The rage felt by the oppressed is motivated by love and justice and is a catalyst for courageous action.
If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that human rights are non-negotiable. Racism is not an issue of compromise, nor can we reach a second-rate settlement on women and LGBTI rights. We cannot repress rage in the face of persistent violence and inequality. We will never dismantle brick walls cemented with a brutal bigotry, using peace and persuasion. We have to smash them down with self-sacrificing stoicism and an uncompromising brute force of justice.
“When people are determined they can overcome anything”—Madiba.
This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, special series on 16 Days of Activism, providing fresh views on everyday news.