The South African legal team at the International Court of Justice in The Hague (Photo: International Court of Justice)
South Africa has received praise from human rights activists for its vocal opposition to the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza. However, a stark contradiction emerges when examining the country’s stance on LGBTIQ+ rights globally, revealing a disconcerting pattern of selective advocacy.
In a recent development, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard South Africa’s suit against the State of Israel, accusing it of committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
While several Western governments, including the US, Canada, the UK and Germany, have rejected South Africa’s claims, there’s a growing global consensus that Israel’s response to the brutal Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023, has been horrifically disproportionate. It, at the very least, amounts to unjustifiable collective punishment that has killed 23,000 Palestinians, including over 9,000 children, 6,200 women and 61 journalists, and leaving many more facing dire conditions and imminent starvation.
The South African government’s historic stand in The Hague has been marked by rational, compassionate and principled arguments that seek to position our state as a bastion of human rights predicated on our own experience of inhumanity.
However, an inconsistency arises when juxtaposing this principled stance with the government’s failure to condemn LGBTIQ+ human rights violations. For instance, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in May 2023, imposing severe penalties, including life imprisonment and the death penalty for engaging in homosexual acts.
The move has emboldened anti-LGBTIQ+ African legislators. Several other countries, such as Ghana and Tanzania, are now threatening to enact similar draconian laws. Just last month, the President of Burudni, Évariste Ndayishimiye, called for the public stoning of gay people.
In the days before Uganda’s bill was signed, South Africans took to the streets to protest this repulsive attack on the humanity of LGBTIQ+ people. We called on our government to take a principled, rational and compassionate stand. We didn’t expect South Africa to haul Uganda before the International Court of Justice, we asked for far less; simply for it to publicly condemn the unjust and deadly law.
Yet that was a step too far for the Union Buildings and Luthuli House. Instead, President Ramaphosa welcomed President Museveni to our country with open arms and much fanfare, even awarding him the prestigious Order of South Africa.
South Africa’s strategic alliances also influence its actions. Over the past decade, under Putin’s strongman rule, Russia – one of our BRICS partners – has become an increasingly autocratic state. Among its most visible assaults on freedom is the clampdown on the LGBTIQ+ community. In November, the Supreme Court of Russia proclaimed the “LGBTQ+ movement” as “extremist” in a sham process at the bidding of the government, a move to effectively outlaw LGBTIQ+ rights activism. Our government has also remained silent on this deteriorating state of LGBTIQ+ rights in Russia.
The unavoidable and predictable conclusion is that South Africa is ultimately no more principled, righteous, or morally superior than any other government. Like most others, it favours its friends, turning a blind eye to their failings, while calling out those who do not belong to the African or BRICS playgroup.
It is crucial to emphasise that raising these concerns is not an exercise in ‘whataboutism’, an attempt to undermine South Africa’s legitimate stance on Israel, or even to compare the suffering of Palestinians with LGBTIQ+ people. Instead, it is a call to both applaud the country when it does the right thing and to use these instances to highlight its hypocrisy and inconsistency.
As a nation that lived through apartheid, we must expect better of ourselves. We all need to be openly held accountable on human rights abuses; Israel, the West, Africa, BRICS nations, everyone. As Maya Angelou said: “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.” And that, President Ramaphosa and Minister Pandor, also applies to LGBTIQ+ people.