Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
2 February 2012

Silence = Death

Yesterday, more than six years and about 50 postponements later, four of the men who brutally murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana because she was a lesbian were finally sentenced to an effective fourteen years in jail. On the same day, in another part of South Africa, three men were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment by the Phalaborwa Regional Court for poaching Rhino. Decisions on the sentencing of serious criminals is not an exact science, but on its face, the difference between the relatively light sentences imposed on Nkonyana’s killers compared to the sentences imposed on the Rhino poachers, seems rather stark.

There is strong anecdotal evidence (as well as some research from South Africa and the USA), that suggests the race, the gender, the class, the HIV status, the sexual orientation or the education level of both the killer and of the victim sometimes play a role in the severity of the sentence imposed on a killer. A white farmer who kills a black labourer may sometime receive a lighter sentence than a black unemployed youth who kills a blonde young woman. A heterosexual man who kills a lesbian may sometimes receive a lighter sentence than a poor gay man who kills a rich heterosexual banker. And if one kills a tourist who lives in Europe one might well get a far heavier sentence than if one kills a poor black woman living in a rural area.

Given the serious delays in the Nkonyana case, coupled with reports of sloppy investigation and the stalling tactics used by the lawyers representing the killers, it is a bit of a miracle that the four men were indeed convicted and sentenced yesterday. From personal experience I know that not all members of the police are eager to investigate hate crimes against gay men and lesbians and often fail to investigate reports of assault against gay men, lesbians and transgendered persons. And if they do investigate the crimes they often fail to do so with the same diligence than they would investigate, say, the murder of a foreign tourist or a blond girlfriend of a rugby player.

This is not to deny that we have made progress over the past 15 years. At least the case was investigated and brought to court, the accused received a fair trial and the presiding officer was prepared to convict the killers and sentence them to jail – despite the fact that they “only” killed a black lesbian.

For example, some years ago Judge President John Hlophe allowed Christopher Moses “to get away with murder” because his victim was HIV positive. Moses had killed a gay man called, Gerhard Pretorius, and then claimed that, on the night of the murder, he and the deceased had unprotected penetrative sex for the first time. He also claimed that after the sex, Pretorius told him that he had HIV.

Moses’s defence, as stated by his psychiatrist, was that he flew into “an annihilatory rage” beyond his control. The state psychiatrist demonstrated that Moses could not have lost total control because the evidence demonstrated a sustained “complex and goal- oriented” attack. Academic critics argued that Hlophe should have found Moses guilty of murder and that he had misapplied the doctrine of criminal capacity to the case. The murderer’s personal circumstances indicated a reduced sentence would have been appropriate. Instead, Hlophe found that knowingly exposing a person to HIV was sufficient reason to murder them with an excuse of “uncontrollable rage”. He ignored the undisputed objective evidence of premeditation, including fetching two different knives to finish a murder and then setting about creating an alibi.

In any event, it is impossible to say whether the sentences imposed on Zoliswa Nkonyana’s killers would have been significantly lighter if the court had not made a ground-breaking ruling that the killing was motivated by homophobic hate and if this was not taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing. Section 28 of the Equality Act states that when the state proves that unfair discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or disability played a part in the commission of the offence, this must be regarded as an aggravating circumstance for purposes of sentence, but the court yesterday extended this to sexual orientation. This section does not mention sexual orientation discrimination or any other criminal attacks animated by hatred for gay men or lesbians

Interesting, while looking at this aspect of the Equality Act, I have been unable to determine whether the provisions of this part of the Equality Act (which deals with the Promotion of Equality by the State and private individuals) have indeed come into operation. My LexisNexis legal database states that the date of commencement of these sections is “still to be proclaimed”. This means that the positive obligations imposed by the Equality Act to promote equality and thus deal with the causes of prejudice and discrimination have never been put into force, which would be strange, given the professed commitment of our government to the achievement of equality.

Section 25 of the Equality Act spells out some of the positive obligations placed on the state by this Act to promote equality.

(1) The State must, where necessary with the assistance of the relevant constitutional institutions (a) develop awareness of fundamental rights in order to promote a climate of understanding, mutual respect and equality; (b) take measures to develop and implement programmes in order to promote equality; and (c) where necessary or appropriate: (i) develop action plans to address any unfair discrimination, hate speech or harassment; (ii) enact further legislation that seeks to promote equality and to establish a legislative framework in line with the objectives of this Act; (iii) develop codes of practice as contemplated in this Act in order to promote equality, and develop guidelines, including codes in respect of reasonable accommodation; (iv) provide assistance, advice and training on issues of equality; (v) develop appropriate internal mechanisms to deal with complaints of unfair discrimination, hate speech or harassment; (vi) conduct information campaigns to popularise this Act.

(2) The South African Human Rights Commission and other relevant constitutional institutions may, in addition to any other obligation, in terms of the Constitution or any law, request any other component falling within the definition of the State or any person to supply information on any measures relating to the achievement of equality including, where appropriate, on legislative and executive action and compliance with legislation, codes of practice and programmes.

(4) All Ministers must implement measures within the available resources which are aimed at the achievement of equality in their areas of responsibility by: (a) eliminating any form of unfair discrimination or the perpetuation of inequality in any law, policy or practice for which those Ministers are responsible; and (b) preparing and implementing equality plans in the prescribed manner, the contents of which must include a time frame for implementation of such plans, formulated in consultation with the Minister of Finance.

Once these sections become operational (if ever) the state will have a legal duty to take the lead in educating the public around issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance (including intolerance against non-believers), and prejudices against disabled persons.

The fact that this has not happened to the degree envisaged by the Constitution (and by these seemingly inoperable provisions of the Equality Act), suggests that not all members of our government (at both national and provincial level) are fully committed to the eradication of all forms of hatred and prejudice and to the promotion of a world in which all kinds of differences between people are respected and even celebrated.

What is needed to turn the tide against prejudice and hatred based on sexual orientation (as well as race, sex, gender and disability) is political leadership from the highest level. Unless the President, the Deputy President and Ministers (as well as Premiers and MEC’s and Mayors) regularly speak out against homophobia (and other forms of prejudice) and against the violence and threats of violence that haunt especially working class, black, gay men, lesbians and other sexual minorities, attitudes will not begin to change.

Just like Helen Zille needs to speak out regularly against racism and the racial utterances of people like Steve Hofmeyer, so Jacob Zuma should speak out against the homophobic statements that are regularly made by other politicians, community leaders and religious leaders.

Until these leaders stop feeling embarrassed about the fact that we have different sexual orientations and until they stop – through their silence – from condoning the hatred and prejudice that too often spill over into violence against gay men and lesbians, attitudes will not begin to change.

A good place to start a campaign that would foster respect for difference would be in our schools. School principals need to be trained in diversity management and should only be promoted if they can demonstrate that they have taken steps to create a school environment in which racial, gender, sexual orientation and religious diversity is not only tolerated but celebrated. An environment should be created in which teachers begin to realise that they have a duty to promote the values contained in our Constitution – including the value of respect for the human dignity of everyone, regardless of his or her sexual orientation.

The truth is that most politicians are uncomfortable about sexuality issues and would rather never have to think about the fact that gay men and lesbians exist and that they are our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our sons and daughters, our comrades and colleagues. They will not speak out against injustice because they are scared that they will be viewed with suspicion (and might be suspected of being gay or lesbian themselves), so they keep quiet while people like Zoliswa Nkonyana get harassed, assaulted, raped and murdered.

White South Africans have a specific duty to speak out against racism whenever it is expressed or perpetrated by fellow whites. When they keep silent around braaivleis fires, in boardrooms, at dinner parties when somebody tells a racist joke or makes racist statements about black South Africans, they become complicit in the perpetuation of racism. Similarly, if we remain silent in the face of implicit or explicit homophobia amongst our friends we become complicit in homophobia and, ultimately, in the killing of gay men and lesbians.

How anyone can justify his or her silence in the face of racism and sexism and homophobia, I really do not know.

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