Dr. Paul Semugoma
It was a day of high drama yesterday as South African immigration officials allegedly attempted to force a gay activist onto a plane to Uganda in contravention of a court order.
On Tuesday, the South Gauteng High Court issued an order for the Department of Home Affairs to immediately release Dr Paul Semugoma, a Ugandan medical doctor and an internationally recognised HIV and LGBTI advocate, from immigration custody at O.R Tambo airport in Johannesburg.
The department refused and instead, on Wednesday, ordered its officials to get Semugoma onto a 2 p.m. SAA flight back to his home country, where he could face serious persecution.
“Paul called us and said ‘I am being deported now’ and we rushed to the airport,” said Steve Letsike, Civil Society Chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council. “Paul, however, kept refusing to get onto the plane after which the flight left.”
Meanwhile, the department said that it intends filing an appeal against the court order to release him and appeared to defend its refusal to comply with the order by saying that it did not have a representative at the hearing.
“The suggestion that the Department of Home Affairs sought to ignore the interim court order in this regard are false and must be dismissed,” said spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa.
“In this context, we appeal to the public to avoid imputing motive and thus communicating falsehoods regarding the reasons for refusing Dr. Semugoma entry into South Africa,” he added.
These statements were rubbished by an angry Letsike who insisted that the department was well aware of the hearing and the subsequent order and accused it of deliberately not sending a representative to court.
“This is a failure of the state to comply. They had a plenty of time to be in court. They were deliberately causing a delay. It was their intention. And this delay is costing Paul’s dignity and rights.”
Letsike expressed outrage at the way the department has dealt with Semugoma during the legal wrangle. “This is really ridiculous and unacceptable. Even if you want to challenge this you can do so but you don’t have to detain or try to deport him.”
Letsike revealed that a coalition of civil society groups has filed a contempt of court order against Home Affairs, which will be heard today. The groups hope that the court will enforce its order to release the doctor.
Semugoma has been in South Africa since 2011 on a visitor’s permit and has applied for an Exceptional Skills Permit to work here. His applications have been repeatedly lost but he had been allowed to travel in and out of the country while working as a volunteer with Anova Health’s Health4Men project.
On Monday, after returning from an HIV prevention meeting in Zimbabwe, he was denied entry into the country by immigration officials, apparently because his visitors’ visa has expired, and has since been stuck at the airport.
In a statement, Glenn de Swardt, programme manager of Anova Health Institute, decried the developments of the last few days. “This situation places endemic homophobia in Africa under the spotlight and we deplore the Department of Home Affairs not taking a positive stance in this matter,” said de Swardt.
Semugoma has no clothes to change into and has been provided food inconsistently, claim activists who have been denied access to see him.
“Paul is not a criminal and his partner is being disregarded in all of this. And he has been volunteering in South Africa to protect the health rights of a marginalised community. My frustration is that the state does not want to account for its behaviour,” said Letsike.