Professor Pierre de Vos is a highly respected commentator on constitutional and legal matters as they relate to our polity, and is an outspoken thought leader on issues of relevance to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community. It is for this reason that the African Arts Institute (AFAI) invited him to participate in a public forum on Monday 23 February on the topic “Is same-sex love African”?
He subsequently wrote a blog on his site, Constitutionally Speaking, in which he not only shared his general critique of the event, but was particularly critical of AFAI for giving a platform to Iman Ismail Ngqoyiyana, who expressed views that many in the audience found offensive. In his blog titled “Those intolerant of bigotry do not invite bigots to speak” he suggests that the African Arts Institute needs to be “delegitimised” the African Arts Institute for providing a platform for “bigotry”. In doing so, Professor De Vos shows himself to be at best myopic in his interpretation and representation of what occurred that night, playing to his gallery, and at worst, not a little economic with the truth, which raises huge questions about his integrity, and about whether to take seriously anything else he writes in future.
This is a response to his blog, which I have divided into sections below, with my comments under relevant sections.
But first, three introductory points:
- AFAI hosts regular public forums on controversial subjects or “hot topics”, ranging from whether artists should be members of political parties; the Cape Town Fringe’s censorship of a play by a “sex pest”; the City of Cape Town’s support for public art installations such as the “Ray Ban spectacles” to the closed casting of the recent Maynardville production of Othello funded by taxpayers. For all of these, we try, as far as possible, to have a range of views on the panel that introduces the topic, after which we invite engagement with the audience. The panel on same-sex love in Africa was no different in form.
- AFAI advertises these events on social media, on our website, and through direct emails to our database; who attends depends entirely on the topic, the speakers and the interest of those who receive the information. We do not restrict attendance in any way; nor do we screen attendees before they are allowed to attend or participate in the forum.
- At the “same-sex in Africa” forum, three of the four panellists were from the gay community; most of the audience – certainly if the speakers from the audience were a barometer – were gay, or highly sympathetic to our gay community.
The following are paragraphs are from my prepared introductory remarks to the forum (which I referenced, but did not read word-for-word at the beginning):
Tonight’s forum takes place in the context of the latter area of engagement (AFAI’s interest in cultural policy and theory). Over the last year, we’ve hosted seminars and public forums in Johannesburg and Cape Town under the broad rubric of “Culture and Development”, the banner under which international funding is generally made available to stakeholders in the African creative sector.
Often, some of the themes introduced to us in Africa arise out of contexts in which they may be more applicable than our own, but we embrace them, because of the resources attached to them. So yesterday it was cultural diversity, the day before, the creative industries, today, it’s climate change and the arts, tomorrow it’s intercultural dialogue, etc.
What do these themes mean for us? Are they relevant to us? Do the conditions exist across the continent for these to be embraced in their entirety, or in part?
On the other hand, we often hear about the need to find African solutions for African problems, and in the process, people suffer while we search for such answers. We often hear of the need to interrogate issues from within African cultural paradigms, and this is where the notion of culture and development first arose in the sixties: models of development were introduced to newly independent countries and yet, they failed because they were not rooted in the values, worldviews, belief systems of those who were supposed to benefit from these.
There is much debate about human rights in Africa and whether what may be considered human rights in western democracies where particular cultural values prevail, might have different meanings and expressions in other contexts e.g. the debates around freedom of expression and the rights to private property.
There are also debates about democracy, about whether – given the influence of more traditional forms of governance – African forms of democracy are different to western forms of democracy. In our own country, we often hear the argument that a particular course of action or belief is inconsistent with the culture of a particular community. This is the area in which AFAI works, trying to negotiate, interrogate and understand what is valid and legitimate when it comes to the impact of culture on development, on human rights and on democracy, and on the other hand, what is not.
South Africa’s constitution outlaws discrimination based on a number of factors, including sexual orientation, which has led to South Africa being held up as one of the most progressive societies in the world. Same-sex marriages are now legal as is the adoption of children by same-sex couples.
But this constitutional right is not supported by everyone. Religious and various cultural communities consider this to be inconsistent with their religious beliefs and/or the values, traditions, belief systems – in short – the culture of these communities.
The vast majority of African countries have outlawed same-sex relationships, and have imposed harsh penalties on gay relationships. Many of these countries – and people within these countries (as we know from travelling across and working with colleagues in a number of African countries) – consider same-sex relationships a western import, a western construct, an imposition of an immoral western society, declaring that same-sex relationships are un-African. They claim that there is no tradition of same-sex relationships in Africa, and reject any advocacy around this, to the point of some declining funding from western countries should this be conditional upon them allowing – or at least turning a blind eye to – homosexual relationships.
So, tonight, we’re asking that simple question: in the same way that we’ve asked before – is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all its clauses – consistent with African understanding? Of course, there are 54 countries on the continent so that what is “African” is hardly “essentialist” or consistent across the continent, but with so many countries actually having passed laws legislating against same-sex love, the question tonight is “Is same-sex love African or not?” And, depending on how the question is answered, what are the implications?
Those intolerant of bigotry do not invite bigots to speak
Feb 25th, 2015 by Pierre De Vos.
One of the favourite mantras of some free speech fundamentalists is that “the cure for bad speech is more speech”. But sometimes it is counter-productive, even wicked, to continue debating an issue when such a debate serves to promote and legitimise beliefs and practices that lead to the assault, rape and murder of marginalised and vulnerable people. Sometimes the only cure for bad speech is to isolate and delegitimise those who engage in such speech or who give it a platform.
The professor tilts as [sic] windmills in his opening paragraph, seeking an enemy – “those…who give (‘bad speech’) a platform” where none exists, and so, possibly alienates an ally, or a potential ally, in the process. What we as AFAI were looking for from the debate, and what we expected from someone like De Vos, were intellectually sound arguments, a capacity for dissecting the presentations of those with whom they disagreed, a presentation of research that dismantled the reasoning or beliefs of their opponents. What we got instead is De Vos’ emotional characterisation of the debate as one that legitimised “beliefs and practices that lead to the assault, rape and murder of marginalised and vulnerable people”, the kind of characterisation that makes it difficult to argue against for fear of being accused of being complicit in such dastardly deeds (as De Vos implies we are).
De Vos naively suggests that “the only cure for bad speech is to isolate and delegitimise those who engage in such speech or who give it a platform” as if by doing so, one will do away with the beliefs and practices that lead to the rapes and murders of black lesbians for example! A more rational approach – in my view – is at best, to confront and dismantle the beliefs and practices that lead to such violence against the LGBTI community, and, at worst, to seek to form alliances and partnerships with those whose views might be fundamentally different to yours on particular issues, but who agree with you on other fundamentals, like, for example, not criminalising or killing gay people, so that they, in turn, may influence others not to commit such acts of violence against the LGBTI community.
Thirty-eight African countries have laws prohibiting homosexual practices, many of them in the belief that homosexuality is a Western import, a signifier of Western decadence. Iman Ismail Ngqoyiyana himself gave expression to this view, so that it is not only a view held beyond the Limpopo; it is a view held by a religious leader who has influence in his Khayelitsha community.
I would venture that there would be more chance of reducing the number of rapes and murders of lesbians in Khayelitsha by engaging with religious leaders in that community to take a strong stand against such violence, than by dismissing any engagement with them on account of them being “bigots”. By the same token, De Vos would refuse – and encourage others not – to engage with political, religious and social leaders in African countries where homosexuality is criminalised, because – as expressed in his blog – the very act of engaging them is “wicked”, or perpetuates the beliefs that lead to such criminalisation. This way of thinking, I would argue, is the way of the rich and the privileged, those who in fact do not face such violence and criminalisation, but live in their laager of well-resourced pontification, surrounded by fellow pontificators, all reinforcing each other’s ivory tower outrage.
Let’s get this straight. The debate did NOT promote the murder of lesbians; even Imam Ngqoyiyana made this clear. After the panellists each had a chance to present their views on the topic, there was an audience member – one who introduced himself as Ebrahim – who began by saying that he hopes not to offend anyone, and then proceeded to say that the Quran tells the story of Lot, a righteous man, who was the only man saved when God punished the people of a city for their sins, including the sin of sodomy, where those engaged in such acts were crushed.
At this point, one of the panellists objected to what she said was hate speech, an incitement of violence against gay people. In my role as facilitator of the debate, I expressed the view that simply for the audience member to be describing what he understood the Quran to be saying on the subject, was not necessarily the same as advocating it.
When Iman Ngqoyiyana responded to the round of questions, he expressly contradicted Ebrahim, stating that it is not the Quran, but the Bible that calls for the killing of homosexuals and he quoted the relevant chapters and verses in Leviticus. When questioned further about Islam’s attitude to homosexuals, Iman Ngqoyiyana said that three of the four main schools of Islamic law promoted the death penalty for homosexuals, while the fourth did not. South African Muslims – he said – subscribed to the fourth school of thought, and did not advocate death for homosexuals. Local Islamic scholars and leaders believed in the “re-education” of homosexuals.
Thus, for De Vos to suggest that the debate promoted beliefs and practices that lead to the assault, rape and murder of marginalised and vulnerable people, is, quite simply, false, a figment of his own self-righteous, heroic imagination.
When I was invited by the African Arts Institute to take part in a panel discussion on “Same sex love in Africa”, I reluctantly agreed. I find it somewhat tedious and politically problematic to be asked to talk about the African continent and its people as if it is a monolithic space inhabited by people who are identical in every way.
De Vos’ imagination continues to haunt him in the above paragraph; no-one asked him to speak about the African continent as if it were a monolithic space. In my introductory comments, I stated quite clearly that Africa is not a homogenous entity, and that there were not only differences between countries and regions, but even within countries. During the discussion, De Vos himself referenced this opening comment in agreement, so to give the impression that he was reluctantly engaging in a debate shaped by the African Arts Institute to imply Africa as a monolith, is disingenuous.
In truth though, 38 African countries have outlawed homosexuality. This is more than two-thirds of the total number of African countries. Should these countries constitute a voting bloc in an African parliament, their two-thirds majority would make this an “African position” in that the majority of African countries have laws criminalising same-sex love. Many African leaders have expressed the view that homosexuality is an import or imposition of the West, a view they further justify when Western countries withhold – or threaten to withhold – development aid against countries that have outlawed homosexuality.
In the last month, I’ve been approached by a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo for advice about publishing his book, Who is African and Proud to be African? In it, he specifically asks the question “Is homosexuality African?” At a recent cultural policy workshop which we hosted for leaders in cultural NGOs in the Eastern Cape, the overwhelming view expressed by particularly the men in the workshop – who identified themselves as Xhosa men – was that homosexuality was not part of their culture.
During the public forum, De Vos took the African Arts Institute to task as in his view, we were starting with the wrong question; that to ask the question – is same-sex love consistent with African culture? – is to perpetuate the marginalisation of gay people in Africa. If there is arrogance, then it is in the dismissal by De Vos of a question and a view that many people subscribe to across the continent!
As AFAI, we work in the realm of cultural policy and theory, seeking answers and perspectives to issues that confront practitioners on the continent, from within African paradigms and conditions as varied as they are. It is in order to deal with the question that we ask it, hoping for learned colleagues to help us grapple with it and present alternatives to the dominant discourses where necessary. The elitist De Vos though, with typical South African arrogance (in relation to the rest of the continent) dismisses the question and concern as “wrong”.
The manner in which “Africa” (as a colonial construct) is deployed in the Western imagination to erase the beauty, vibrancy, individuality, vitality, agency and multiplicity of vastly different individuals living in different parts of our continent is galling and arrogant.
I agree. But what for me is equally galling, arrogant and tiresome is the denialism of a political or class elite that is so eager to dispel “western” constructs or “colonial” impressions of Africa or to prove their African credentials, that in doing so, they ignore or shy away from the poverty and oppression of many of the continent’s people. There is a reason why most African countries find themselves in the “Low Human Development” category of the UNDP’s Human Development Index that measures life expectancy, education levels and quality of life. There are reasons why, despite huge GDP growth for many African countries over the last 15-20 years, most African people continue to live below the poverty line eking out an existence in the informal sector, with sub-Saharan life expectancy at unacceptable low of 55 years. Africa is not a continent of binary oppositions, of “Africa Rising” or “Africa: The Dark/Hopeless/Bottomless Continent”; it has elements of both, simultaneously and much more in between, and beyond either of these poles.
What we are facing and challenging though with regard to this particular issue, is not something that has to do with a colonial or western imagination (this is a complete red herring in De Vos’ blog); it has to do with what Africans themselves are saying! And what they are saying is that homosexuality is western, it is an imposition of the West on Africa, and are rejecting it as not part of “African culture”. So it is with great irony that De Vos holds forth about the “beauty” and “agency” of Africa, but wishes – with typical Western arrogance – to deny Africans their agency in dismissing homosexuality as un-African.
This habit of thinking and speaking of “Africa” as a gigantic, blank space inhabited by smiling people patiently waiting under acacia trees for Madonna or Brangelina to adopt their children while lions roar prettily in the distance is perfectly captured by the mocking title of the magnificent website called “Africa is a Country”. I nevertheless agreed to take part in the discussion at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town because I believe it is important to engage critically with how we think about same sex love and how we deal with hateful but deeply entrenched beliefs and dogmas about the sexuality of the previously colonised and the marginalised and oppressed in society. I do not, in principle, have a problem to talk about the harms caused by religious dogma and how we can begin to address the corrosive effects of this dogma on people living in different societies, cultures, and in different towns, cities and countries.
If only De Vos had actually “engaged critically with how we think about same sex love and how we deal with hateful but deeply entrenched beliefs…” and if only he had talked about how “we can begin to address the corrosive effectives of this (religious) dogma”…this would have been an actual, real and meaningful contribution to the public forum. Instead, all we got was a “woe-is-me” reaction to some of what he thought the Imam as saying, and this, after he had decided that the topical question on the night was not the right question!
A good place to start is to recognise that the colonial conquest of the African continent facilitated the spread of Christianity and Islam throughout the continent. If you are thus the kind of person who likes to show your disproval of certain beliefs or practices that you do not know or that you fear by claiming that they are “un-African” you might well need to start by conceding that Christianity and Islam are “un-African”. The colonisers (animated by racist fears) invoked beliefs and dogmas borrowed from these religions to stigmatise as dangerous and degenerate sexuality and desire that did not conform to problematic, idealised, Western, norms in order to justify the policing of sex and desire through the enforcement of Western style criminal law and through the enforcement of religious dogma. Reactions to Brett Murray’s The Spear painting reminded us again of this shameful history and the problematic ways in which colonial conquest stigmatised sexuality and desire (and pathologised black bodies more generally) in many parts of our continent.
There is no doubt that Christianity and Islam have contributed substantially to views and beliefs about sexuality, and continue to do so, with the anti-gay laws in Uganda, for example, being sponsored by American churches. But many Africans are not necessarily responding to homosexuality in terms of their religious beliefs or identity; some are doing it as “Africans” as “Xhosa men” for example.
Islam has been part of Africa for literally hundreds of years, as has Christianity, so that these ARE now integral to – some – African cultures (cultures change after all, and integrate dominant influences). Football, hardly African in origin, is now an integral part of African culture. It is thus erroneous – but, more importantly, of little persuasive value – to dismiss proponents of the idea that “homosexuality is un-African” as having “borrowed” these beliefs from un-African religions.
De Vos’ reference to Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear, which depicted President Zuma in a Lenin-like pose with his genitals exposed, is interesting in the context of this discussion. There were certainly those who dismissed the painting as “racist” because in their view, the white Murray was continuing “the shameful history and problematic ways in which colonial conquest stigmatised sexuality and desire…”. But others appropriated a “cultural” response to the painting stating that it was against Zulu culture to depict the genitals of an elder, and that the painting was deeply respectful of Zulu culture. Ayanda Mbulu has also depicted Zuma with his genitals exposed, and yet, there was no outcry against this painting raising the question about whether culture is used from time to time as means of silencing criticism? The male organ has long been used as a symbol of power, of rape and pillage, and within a few months of the controversy around The Spear, Nkandla began to appear in the headlines and has continued to do so as an example of the rape and pillage of the public purse by those in power.
While the Constitution guarantees freedom of artistic expression and thus would protect Murray’s right to paint and exhibit The Spear as part of his Hail to the Thief 2 exhibition mocking the ANC’s selling out of its liberation ideals, there were many who felt culturally offended, that the painting was un-African, that it was inconsistent with African values, beliefs and traditions. It is within these countervailing forces – Constitutional ideals on the one hand and culture on the other – that debates, contestation, arguments will and should occur, as part of social progress.
Similarly, while the Constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, there are many who believe otherwise, whether for particularly cultural reasons or for religious reasons (I would not separate the two as religious belief is fundamental to cultural identity). And debates, arguments and contestation in this regard must necessarily occur as part of our social progress.
De Vos, though, while claiming to believe in such dialogue and contestation, in reality does not, as exhibited by the manner of his participation in the public forum and in his subsequent blog!
In the original email I received from the African Arts Institute I was told the discussion was aimed at gaining “a deeper understanding of perspectives on same sex love in relation to culture, tradition, identity politics and human rights”.
Exactly right! In a further email sent to all the speakers on the Friday three days before the debate, my colleague wrote “I would also like to re-iterate the primary question we would like to tackle in the debate – is same-sex love (or homosexual love) African or not? We are framing the question as such in order to elucidate the ways in which expressions of sexuality are understood from a cultural perspective. The question begs more questions – what does it mean to be African, how is one’s African-ness defined, what is African culture and how is it changing? The debate is aimed not to establish moral judgment on sexual preference and expression, but rather to explore its perceived and real intersections with culture, particularly within the African (and South African) context.”
This clearly explained where we were coming from as the African Arts Institute, to all the speakers.
I assumed the discussion would occur in a relatively safe space in which my basic humanity, my right to exist and flourish as a human being and my right not to be killed would not be treated as subjects open to legitimate discussion and debate. On Monday afternoon I received a call from one of the organisers and for the first time was alerted to the fact that I would share the podium not only with an artist and with a fellow academic but also with an Imam. The organiser told me that they foresaw sharp conflict as the Imam would argue that same sex love was un-African and against Islam. Although irritated by what I perceived to be a dishonest ambush, I nevertheless agreed to continue with my participation out of politeness and out of respect for those who would go to the trouble of attending the event.
Again, De Vos characterises what happened at the debate as if there was a general call for gays to be murdered. This is COMPLETELY FALSE!! As pointed out earlier, a member of the audience – we do not screen our audiences and ask them to state their beliefs prior to allowing them entry – expressed what he believed the Quran said about homosexuals having to be punished by death, but Iman Ismail Ngqoyiyana clearly and unambiguously disabused the speaker of that notion. De Vos seeks emotional sympathy from his gallery to paint the organisers and one of the panellists as advocates of the murder of gays (he believes that the beliefs of the Imam lead to the killings of gays and that AFAI is complicit by allowing him a platform to express his views), but he is being utterly dishonest in that the Imam did NOT at any stage call for or condone physical violence against gay people, so that we as AFAI certainly did not provide him with a platform to do so.
De Vos complains that he felt ambushed by being phoned beforehand to forewarn him that one of the panellists would probably be taking a position that same-sex love is un-African and against Islam. Imagine if we had not alerted De Vos to this; then he would really have had a reason to feel “ambushed!” By alerting him, he had the opportunity to withdraw, but he chose not to “out of politeness” and “out of respect for those who were to attend”. Out of politeness, my colleague forewarned him so that he could prepare accordingly. One would have hoped that thoughtleaders and activists in this sector would have the arguments on hand to deal with the expected views of the Imam, considering that these views are hardly new. It would hardly have been a “debate” if the three speakers were all from the gay community, and, in accordance with our intentions as clearly outlined above, it made sense to have someone present as clearly as possible a view that supported the notion that “homosexuality was un-African” and that others would offer counterviews. Otherwise, what would be debated on that subject? At the same time, we informed Imam Nqgoyiyana that indeed, there would be gay people on the panel, as well as in the audience.
I assumed that Mike van Graan, who chaired the panel, would not allow the event to degenerate and would create and defend a safe space in which rational and respectful discussion would remain possible. This did not happen. The Imam spoke about diseased fishes (what this had to do with the topic never became clear), quoted disapproving passages from the Koran and (as is often the case with men of the cloth) generally displayed a morbid obsession with the mechanics of sex.
I would hardly be the one to defend Imam Ngqoyiyana’s views, but it is ironic that De Vos questions what he had to say in reference to the topic when De Vos himself refused to discuss the topic, reprimanding AFAI for even hosting a debate with such a topic. But what goes to the very integrity and intellectual honesty of De Vos is his characterisation of the debate as one that “degenerated” and was not a “safe space” for “rational and respectful discussion”.
First, it is necessary to point out that the overwhelming majority of the audience was gay, or sympathetic to the gay community, certainly with regard to the questions posed and the responses to Imam Ngqoyiyana. Second, while the three gay speakers presented their views, there was no heckling, no commentary, no laughter or shaking of heads from those who might have disagreed with these presentations. This minority listened with respectful silence. But, while Iman Ngqoyiyana spoke, there were many vocal, disapproving responses from the audience. I ended my introduction to the debate by stating “Finally, this is an understandably heated subject, but I would like to appeal to all of us to seek to engage in the discussion with as much respect for each other as possible”.
The “rational and respectful” space was undermined by audience members vocally expressing their opposition to the Imam’s views while he was articulating them. It started to “degenerate” when a panelist expressed the view that Ebrahim (referred to earlier) had engaged in hate speech. As pointed out earlier, the Imam expressly “corrected” Ebrahim’s understanding of the Quran. The “rational and respectful space” was further undermined by at least one audience member – not a supporter of the Imam – interrupting me as the chairperson.
It is extremely ironic that De Vos characterizes the debate and forum as an unsafe, disrespectful and rational space, when in fact, it was the Imam who read his prepared speech to much vocal interjection, and when it was De Vos’ supporters who were primarily responsible for disrespectful engagement!
It is also extremely ironic that we had to convince Imam Ngqoyiyana not to withdraw from the panel after he had confirmed, as he was concerned that his would be a minority and unpopular view, and that he would come in for much stick. We assured him that we had had tense discussions around highly controversial subjects in the past. It was important for the debate, and for the learnings that would hopefully flow from the debate, that he participated. De Vos gives the impression that it was a forum in which the gay people present were under attack, and that I did nothing to protect them. The truth is that it was the minority view of the Imam and his handful of supporters that was under attack mainly, and it was my duty as chairperson to protect the Imam – whatever his views and however different they might have been to mine – and allow him the space both to articulate his position and to respond to questions without being interrupted or howled at.
A questioner stated as fact that Islam required homosexuals to be stoned to death and asked whether this was indeed what was required of Moslems in South Africa. The Imam said that this was indeed the majority view but that most South African Moslems would follow the minority view that holds that homosexuals should be re-educated to get us to turn away from our “perverted” practices. At no point did the Imam explicitly condemn (as outrageous and criminal) the idea that men and women who engage in same sex sexual practices should be stoned to death. Instead, he suggested that there were two legitimate schools of thought (one in favour of murdering homosexuals, the other not) but, when pressed he did concede reluctantly that he belonged to the more “moderate” school of thought and do not personally endorse murder.
Yet again, De Vos – whose views are held in high regard by many – brings his integrity and intellectual honesty into question. As explained earlier, the Imam explicitly corrected the audience member, Ebrahim, specifically stating that the Quran – unlike the Bible – does not call for homosexuals to be put to death. He explained that there were four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, three of which do indeed believe that homosexuality is punishable by death. South Africa’s Muslim community he said, subscribed to the fourth school of Islamic jurisprudence, that homosexuals should not be put to death, but that they be re-educated. De Vos describes the Imam’s concession in this regard as “reluctant”; I do not remember it as such, but this is a description that suits De Vos’ caricaturing and demonization of the Imam.
In contrast to De Vos’ view, a young man in the audience who described himself as gay, after the Imam had stated quite clearly that South African Muslims do not subscribe to the death penalty for homosexuals, spoke half to the audience, saying that often in these kinds of discussions, people talk past each other, not really listening to each other, being set in what they believed. Yet, for him, the fact that the Imam had stated that Muslims in South Africa do not support the murder of homosexuals, should be a starting point for engaging with the Imam and the Muslim community in South Africa, as possible allies in the fight against the violence committed against gay women in particular, but the gay community more broadly. This entirely reasonable and rational approach is clearly not one shared by De Vos who prefers the emotional demonization of the Imam (even for sins he did not commit) and of AFAI who provided him with a platform to commit the sins he did not actually commit.
(As an aside, it is strange that there is not more outrage in society and from the state about religious teachings that endorse the murder of fellow human beings. Why do those who espouse criminality in the name of religious doctrine so often get a free pass? Is it because we have not entirely rejected the notion prevalent in European nations during the pre-Enlightenment theocratic era that religious rules trump the ordinary laws of the land?)
As an aside, why does De Vos persist in claiming that the doctrine espoused by Imam Ngqoyiyana endorses the murder of fellow human beings, when he specifically said that the Quran does not promote the stoning of homosexuals, and that the South African Muslim leadership and community do NOT endorse the murder of fellow human beings who are gay? De Vos is being utterly dishonest and misleading in this regard, which is hardly what one would expect from an academic, a thoughtful intellectual and an opinion maker.
When a fellow panellist as well as other attendees objected to this line of discussion, they were told that they were being intolerant of the views of others who happened to disagree with them.
That there was this line of discussion – that gays should be murdered – was simply not a line of discussion, but De Vos, clearly with his own or someone else’s axe to grind – tries to give the impression that I as chairperson, and by extension AFAI, expected – and demanded – of the audience that they tolerate the view that gays should be murdered. This is a blatant and self-serving untruth! At one stage, given the amount of heckling, I did make a general request for greater tolerance of views as per my introduction, but I specifically labelled as intolerant the audience member who interrupted me on more than one occasion.
The Imam and one of his supporters even claimed to feel victimised because members of the audience expressed their distaste of his bigotry and his spectacular lack of basic decency and humanity. (This is not surprising as bullies often claim to be victims when they are called out on their intimidation and persecution of others.)
Again, De Vos is blind to the irony of his views. He rejects the view of one of the Imam’s supporters that she felt victimised; so it’s absolutely fine for him and his supporters to express their disgust at the Imam and claim all kinds of victimisation, but not for someone who held a different views to theirs, to do the same. Clearly, bigotry is not peculiar to Imams nor to religious fanatics or believers; the tensions within the recent gay pride march attest to that. But while – in De Vos’ view, the Imam displayed a “spectacular lack of basic decency and humanity” – some of his supporters displayed exactly the same! It is too often the case that those who most demand tolerance and respect (often for highly legitimate reasons) are themselves incredibly intolerant and disrespectful. By no means all, but certainly quite a number in the audience that night were guilty of “a lack of decency and humanity” and I hardly get the impression that De Vos himself has a high regards for the Imam as “human”.
After the event I felt tarnished and degraded for being forced to defend my right to exist in South Africa without fearing that I will be murdered in the name of God. It is unthinkable that in 2015 a body like the African Arts Institute would host a panel discussion which raised the question of whether men and women of different races who engage in sex should be stoned to death or whether they should rather be re-educated. It is also unthinkable that the African Arts Institute would invite Dan Roodt to take part in a panel discussion on whether black people are inherently intellectually and morally inferior to white people.
The professor clearly participated in a different panel discussion to the one we hosted, and to which we invited him. It has been stated clearly what the panel question was, why we were asking the question and what we hoped to get out of it. As for the Dan Roodt parallel, first, Dan Roodt’s views are that of an extreme minority, they are hardly mainstream. The views of Imam Nqgoyiyana on the other hand, are held by many people across the continent. It is precisely for that reason that these views need to be engaged in rational discussion, as difficult as it may be! Secondly, if for some reason, we were to invite Dan Roodt onto a panel on the subject mentioned by the professor, we have no doubt that they while they may be offended by the question, the people we would ask to debate the matter, would have the intellectual ability, the knowledge and personal confidence and security to be able to engage and expose Roodt’s beliefs. This, unfortunately, was not the case with De Vos on this particular panel.
Whether such speech constitutes hate speech or not (and as I have argued many times before, I am not convinced that hurtful speech is best countered by using hate speech legislation), it is not the kind of speech that belongs in a respected (supposedly progressive) public space. This is so because the speech has no value. It does not enlighten. It does not help us to think critically about how better to live in the world. It does not educate or allow us to understand how to deal with oppression and bigotry. It merely reinforces and perpetuates the most narrow-minded, and hateful types of fear mongering and persecution. It provides a platform for speech that directly threatens the well-being and survival of a vulnerable section of South African society.
The professor completely astounds me! While I am in no way defending Imam Ngqoyiyana’s presentation or his answers to questions, the purpose of the evening was not simply to allow Imam Ngqoyiyana a platform “for speech that directly threatens the well-being and survival of a vulnerable section of South African society”. He was not alone on the platform, and his views were by no means the majority view in the audience. The professor and his colleagues could have engaged Imam Ngyoyiyana’s views rather than simply assume a woe-is-us posture. In De Vos’ view, the Imam’s “speech has no value, because it does not enlighten, nor help us to think critically about how better to live in the world”. To be frank, neither did the presentation or the input of De Vos enlighten or help us to think critically about living better in the world. As stated before, precisely because Imam Ngqoyiyana has influence within the Khayelitsha community where black lesbians may be threatened, is this not sufficient reason to engage with him, to seek areas of alliance in order to recruit him in the fight against violent assaults on black lesbians? The Imam was sharing his views in a theatre in the city centre, with a relatively educated, middle class, mainly gay audience, hardly the audience that would “threaten the well-being and survival” of the gay community! Here was an opportunity for people like De Vos to engage the Imam, but De Vos chooses to ridicule him, to caricature his views, to accuse him of statements that he simply did not make. It would not surprise me if – based on his experience and how he was treated as a human being – the Imam is even more convinced of his position, or at least is not any more sympathetic to the gay community. If this is the case, then the gay community has lost a potential ally in Khayelitsha.
By hosting such an event, an organisation such as the African Arts Institute further legitimises widely held hateful views that create the environment in which many people believe it is justified to assault, rape and murder those of us who choose to love members of the same sex. It has potentially deadly consequences. To say that these views should not be given a platform by the African Arts Institute is not to be intolerant of free speech. It is to be intolerant of hate, bigotry and dehumanising language used by those who claim to speak on behalf of a cruel and vengeful God. In any case, it is not speech on behalf of any God I recognise. There is nothing wrong with being intolerant of the type of hatred and bigotry that may well have real and fatal consequences for some of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who happen to love differently from the colonial-cum-religiously imposed norm. It is an entirely different question whether the law should prohibit such speech and allow for the prosecution and imprisonment of those who engage in such hateful bigotry. To support the legal prohibition of certain types of speech would, to some extent, be intolerant of free speech. Except for the most extreme forms of hate speech, I am not in favour of such regulation because I am not sure it would achieve much and I fear regulation could be abused to limit speech which may well turn out to be of value.
De Vos – the professor – is clearly confused. On the one hand, he wonders why “there is not more outrage in society and from the state about religious teachings that endorse the murder of fellow human beings. Why do those who espouse criminality in the name of religious doctrine so often get a free pass?” On the other hand – “except for the most extreme forms of hate speech” – he is not in favour of regulation that prohibits certain types of speech. As I’ve tried to show repeatedly, firstly, Imam Nqgoyina did not articulate a doctrine that “endorses the murder of fellow human beings”; De Vos continues to mislead his readers with such dishonesty! But if he did, then this would certainly constitute hate speech, and the state would be obliged to regulate against such speech! If De Vos as a constitutional lawyer and legal expert believes that Imam Nqgoyiyana really did and does advocate a theological teaching that endorses the murder of gay human beings, then De Vos MUST surely advocate strongly for the state to ban such hate speech as it is intolerable to have such agitation towards murder by anyone. If De Vos does not do this, then he is as complicit in continuing to provide a platform for Imam Nqgoyiyana to spread his “hateful bigotry” as he claims the African Arts Institute was in providing the Imam with a platform. If he does not campaign for Imam Nqgoyiyana to be charged with hate speech, then De Vos is a cowardly hypocrite!
But De Vos clearly lives in a different world to the real one in which we as an institution have to engage. When we run workshops for young leaders from 13 African countries, and not a few of them hold views similar to that of the Imam, what are we to do? Ban them and put them on the next flight back to their respective countries? When young Xhosa men at a cultural policy workshop say that homosexuality is not part of their culture and another declares that same-sex love is not biblical, should we continue the workshop only with those whose views are not bigoted towards gays? If hundreds, perhaps thousands of imams and pastors are preaching that homosexuality is wrong, influencing millions of people in the process, do we ignore such bigoted preachers, because to engage them is to legitimise their views and beliefs? If such preachers genuinely care for the poor in their communities and take strong stands against xenophobia, are we to reject any relationships with them because they have reactionary views on same-sex love? It is quite possible to be intolerant of hate, dehumanising speech and bigotry, and because of that, engage with those who may be guilty of these, in order to change them, and in so doing, to lessen the impact they have on those over whom they have influence. For De Vos in his privileged ivory tower, he may choose who to work with, and whom not to, who to listen and speak to, and whom not to; in the real world, life is more complex, requiring more nuanced engagement than the good-bad binaries of De Vos’ world.
However, who is allowed to speak on a specific platform speaks volumes about the ideology and political commitments of those who control the platform. When those who make such decisions believe it is entirely appropriate to host a discussion on whether gay men and lesbians are fully human and whether they should be murdered or “merely” re-educated, it says just as much about their own lack of humanity and their moral failure as human beings and political actors than about those they invited onto the platform to spread their hatred. It is for that reason that I will not, under present conditions, accept an invitation to appear at an event organised by the African Arts Institute.
And with that, the dramatic, heroic professor ends with a flourish, tilting even more strongly at the offending and imaginary windmills, trying desperately not to fall off his horse. Given his lack of intellectual honesty and his complete inability to offer anything new that could inform our work as an Institute working in the highly contested and nuanced area of culture, it is highly unlikely that we will be inviting the professor to a forum that requires intellectual engagement. Just for the record – again – we, the African Arts Institute, did not host a discussion on whether gay men and lesbians are fully human and whether they should be murdered or “merely” re-educated as alleged by the professor; we hosted a debate on the belief by a significant number of ordinary and influential people on the African continent that same-sex love is not consistent with African culture. We were hoping for research and insights that would debunk this, or for speakers to confront the belief head on and declare what conditions need to be created for same-sex love to be accepted as part of African culture, or at least for arguments that would undermine the key cultural/religious premises of this belief. But that is not what we got.
For the professor then to go on and say in his over-the-top, dramatic terms that the debate – which he thought we had, or which he had in his mind but which is not the debate we had – reflects poorly on our humanity and morality both as human beings and as political players, says a lot about him, and his (own or vicarious) axe that he has to grind. The truth is that among the staff of the African Arts Institute who were part of organising this debate, there are vastly diverse views on the subject. That De Vos uses his intellectually dishonest view about what took place that night to judge and call into question the morality and political commitment of my colleagues and myself, again reflect poorly on him as a human being, an “intellectual” and a political commentator. Fortunately, our credibility – just like our vision and mission – is not dependent on the fallacious, narrow, self-serving views of a supposedly learned professor. I have no doubt that we will lose some friends and supporters as a result of the professor’s blog, and from this response to it, but I am absolutely convinced that the very premise of his blog, and his characterisation of the debate, is dishonest and lacking in moral and intellectual integrity, as I’m sure the video evidence of the debate will attest to.
As far as the African Arts Institute is concerned, we will continue to interrogate this theme as it is of deep relevance to our work in the area of culture, development, human rights and democracy. Anyone who would like to contribute to the growth of theory and arguments around the theme of same-sex love in Africa, and its relevance – or not – to development and human rights, are more than welcome to do so. Our contact details are on our website www.afai.org.za
Mike van Graan