President Jacob Zuma
It’s been reported that President Jacob Zuma has told Parliament that “South Africa respects Uganda’s anti-gay laws.”
That’s according to yesterday’s SAPA headline and story published by various local media. An examination of his statement, however, indicates that this is not exactly what the President said.
Zuma’s comment was in the form of a written response to a parliamentary question from the DA on if he “intends to set a clear policy position for South Africa regarding Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014; if not, why not; if so, what are the relevant details?”
The President replied on Tuesday that: “South Africa respects the sovereign rights of other countries to adopt their own legislation. In this regard, through diplomatic channels South Africa engages with Uganda on areas of mutual concern bearing in mind Uganda’s sovereignty.”
The response is nothing new and appears to restate the South African government’s stance of apparently tackling the issue of LGBTI human rights through behind the scenes discussions.
Recently, after meeting with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) about the Ugandan law, six leading LGBTI groups backed this “quiet diplomacy” approach. They agreed that a more public and forceful response by South Africa could “have the negative effect of further polarisation and hardening of attitudes.”
Having said that, the President (and DIRCO’s) reasoning doesn’t entirely hold water. South Africa has previously publicly criticised other nations’ actions – without necessarily questioning these countries’ sovereignty.
Economist and columnist Xhanti Payi wrote on Facebook that, “it goes without saying that we are bound to respect the sovereignty of other countries. I would be surprised if it were the case that we don’t respect the sovereignty of Israel yet we criticise them on abuses.
“We entirely respect the sovereignty of the US, and we spoke against Congress decisions to violate international law,” he argued. “As I say, it’s illogical that our response to a question of human rights is [in] respect of sovereignty…”
Even if one accepts that LGBTI issues are more “sensitive” than other human rights matters, we as a community and the country remain in the dark as to which, if any, discussions have actually taken place between South Africa and Uganda (and other countries that criminalise homosexuality) about their oppressive laws.
Sadly, Zuma’s traditionalist and anti-gay background and his horribly inappropriate appointment of the openly homophobic Jon Qwelane as our High Commissioner in Kampala don’t give us confidence that much effort has been made.
DIRCO’s stated intention to host a regional seminar on the rights of African LGBTI people sometime this year may yet soften some of this cynicism – if and when the event takes place and if it has any substance.