Pride and prejudice: how not to fight homophobia in Africa

It is simplistic to suggest that African homophobia stems only from colonisation.

The coverage of the recent conviction of two gay Malawians (subsequently pardoned) for homosexuality was dominated by western human rights activists' self-serving -- but ultimately self-defeating -- dismissal of African homophobia as "the desperate defence of western mores in indigenous clothing".

Writing in the Independent, the British activist Peter Tatchell, who is heavily involved in the Malawian test case, claimed that "the minds of many . . . Africans remain colonised by the homophobic beliefs that were drummed into their forebears by the western missionaries who invaded their lands". He reiterated this viewpoint on The Staggers.

To save the situation, Tatchell rallied the troops for a remedial invasion. "It is time to finish the African liberation struggle by ending the persecution of gay Africans," he declared.

The works of Marc Epprecht and Neville Hoad show that homosexuality and homophobia existed in pre-colonial Africa. Yet, ironically, western activists persist in challenging the prejudiced claims by some Africans that homosexuality is "un-African" with the equally prejudiced counterclaim that homophobia is "un-African".

The leading authority for this fallacy, which has been pontificated to the point of infallibility, is a 66-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It provides an accurate account of the colonial origins of most of the statutes that criminalise homosexuality in Africa today.

For example, Nigeria's federal sodomy statute remains identical to the original provision of the 1899 Penal Code of the Australian colony of Queensland.

However, it is a fallacy for HRW to conclude that "sodomy laws throughout . . . sub-Saharan Africa have consistently been colonial impositions", simply because "no 'native' ever participated in their making".

Different blends

Rich and varied systems of indigenous law, which are now collectively called customary law, existed in pre-colonial Africa. Customary criminal law applied wherever there was a political entity requiring the enforcement of certain standards of behaviour and imposing sanctions for their breach.

Although there was no single body of law that applied throughout the continent, a degree of basic uniformity of content existed over a wide range of matters, including the suppression of homosexuality, as was indeed the case among the rest of mankind.

Customary law was affected in many parts of Africa by Islam long before European colonisation. Thus, the British colonialists met different systems, ranging from relatively simple indigenous systems of social norms based on the family, the village, or group of villages, to the highly systematised and sophisticated sharia law of crime. Some systems blended customary with sharia law to varying degrees.

The fundamental feature of customary law was that it was unwritten. Although sharia law was written, it was and still is embodied in disparate rulings of jurists of the various schools. Therefore, the criminalisation of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa was not embodied in comprehensive codes.

However, a vast majority of Africans of all faiths and cultures are united today in their hostility towards homosexuality and this is a reflection of the similarity of the various systems of customary law to each other and to the foreign codes on the subject.

Customary law continues to regulate many areas of people's lives in Africa today. Though largely superseded by legislation, it still governs issues such as family relations. Also, where conflicting legislation exists, lack of access to legal resources and a general absence of the institutions of government may mean that, in practice, customary law still applies.

More significantly, customary law on issues such as homosexuality negates the enforcement of contradictory statutory law. This happens, for instance, in South Africa, where the legal recognition of homosexuality has resulted in a backlash against gays and their perceived assertiveness.

So the fact that the legislation which criminalises homosexuality is in apparent breach of the respective countries' constitutions, and international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which guarantee the right to privacy and prohibit discrimination (as held by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the courts in South Africa and India), does not necessarily mean that a change in legislation will end the persecution of gay people in Africa.

It should also be noted that some African constitutions guarantee the right to culture and oblige the courts to apply customary law in certain circumstances. Similarly, the African Charter provides that "the rights and freedoms of each individual shall be exercised with due regard to morality and common interest", and prescribes that "the promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognised by the community shall be the duty of the state".

Beyond legislation

As such, while current efforts to strike down the sodomy laws through the institution of test cases are an important step in the right direction, there is a need for a more informed and culturally aware strategy that goes beyond litigation and legislation.

Critical in this regard is an understanding of the various brands of Christianity practised today in Africa. These are, to varying degrees, a blend of Judaeo-Christian and African traditions.

HRW's claim that African Christians who oppose homosexuality appropriate "the most stringent moral anathemas of the missionaries' faith, along with an imported law against homosexuality, as essential bulwarks of true African identity", illustrates the sort of fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Africa that has undermined many well-intentioned western interventions.

Perhaps a more pragmatic way to serve the interests of gay Africans in the short term is to appeal to the humanity of a sufficient number of their brothers and sisters. This could reduce homophobia in the continent to a level similar to the one deemed tolerable in the west, where, as the Sun's poll after the David Laws story shows, homophobia remains rife.

Africa cannot afford to face this problem with yet another imported and, in its own way, blinkered attitude, which refuses to acknowledge the existence and influence of home-grown prejudice.

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I want my country back

This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.

This morning, I woke up in a country I do not recognise. David Cameron’s big gamble – the future of Britain against his personal political ambitions – has backfired so badly that we’ve blasted clean out of the EU. By the time I’d put the kettle on, the stock markets were in free fall, Scotland was debating a new independence referendum, Sinn Fein was making secession noises, and the prime minister had resigned.

There’s not enough tea in the entire nation to help us Keep Calm and Carry On today. Not on a day when prejudice, propaganda, naked xenophobia and callous fear-mongering have won out over the common sense we British like to pride ourselves on. Not on a day when we’re being congratulated by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and nobody else. Well done, turkeys. Santa’s on his way.

Nigel Farage, the rich, racist cartoon demagogue, boasts that this victory was won “without a single shot being fired”. Tell that to the grieving family of Jo Cox, the campaigning Labour MP gunned down last week. Farage promised that unless something was done to halt immigration, “violence will be the next step”. It looks like we’ve got a two-for-one deal on that one.

So, here’s the thing. This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world, and yesterday the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain voted out, out, out, and today we've all woken up still strapped onto this ghost-train as it hurtles off the tracks. Leave voters are finding they care less about immigration now that their pension pots are under threat. Maybe one of the gurning pundits promising them pride and sovereignty should have mentioned that, but they were too busy lying about the NHS. The curtain has been torn away and now we all have to look at the men behind it. They are not good men.

Anyone feel like they’ve got their country back yet? No? That, after all, was the rallying cry of the Leave campaign – the transatlantic echo of "Make America Great Again". There’s a precedent for what happens when svengalis with aggressively terrible haircuts are allowed to appeal to parochialism and fear in the teeth of a global recession, and it isn’t pretty.

It says something about this campaign that I’m no longer at all worried about risking hyperbole or unoriginality when referencing all that Nazi history they made us study in school. I’m just frightened. I’m frightened that those who wanted "their" country back will get their wish, and it will turn out to be a hostile, inhospitable place for immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer people – everyone and anyone who wasn’t included when Farage proclaimed victory for "ordinary, decent people" this morning in front of a posse formed entirely of angry-looking, whey-faced blokes in suits.

But the thing is – I want my country back too.

I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.

That country, of course, is fictional. But it’s no less so than the biscuit-tin, curtain-twitching, tea-on-the-lawn-with-your-white-friends-from-the-Rotary-Club fantasy Britain the other side have been plugging for years, editing out all the ugly parts of the past and photoshopping it into the backdrop for an image smeared indelibly across the back of all our sickened eyeballs this morning, an image of fists raised and boots marching in step. If they’re allowed their fantasy, can I have mine, too?

The Welsh have a word for this feeling. The word is "hiraeth". It means a longing for a home you can never return to, a home which may never have existed at all. The Welsh, incidentally, voted to leave the EU after decades of being ungently screwed by government after conniving Tory government; cackling and tearing the heart out of towns which were once famous for something other than teen suicide. Finally, someone gave them the opportunity to vote for change, for any change at all. When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like David Cameron’s face.

Cameron, who today must be longing for the morning when all he had to deal with was the papers claiming he once had sex with a dead pig in university, sold us all up the river that runs through the chasm of British culture. In a sop to the eurosceptic wing of his own party, he gambled the future of the nation and the political stability of the continent for his own career.

The whole mess started because of a disagreement between rival factions of a right-wing government which is still tearing itself apart and taking the rest of us with it. The fractured Left, unable to unite behind a leader with a popular mandate, was nowhere in this conversation until it was far too late. Cameron promised a referendum in order to pander to the rise of a xenophobic far right and secure his own power: he got his wish, was duly re-elected, and now his career is over, and so are the life chances of millions of young British people. He gets to slink off back to Oxfordshire and live off his family money. Don't weep for Hameron. He'll be fine.

If only the same were true of the rest of us. As it stands, tens of millions are going to suffer. Real people are going to hurt. Real people are going to die. That is David Cameron's fault, more than anyone's. It was right for him to resign, but he will surely be replaced by any one of a rogues' gallery of gurning ideologues who have been decrying “experts” and “elites” to people so desperate for change that they didn’t care that those elites are people their wisecracking white knights literally went to school with.

This morning it looked like Britain had shot itself in the foot. By lunch time, with two political parties imploding and the stock markets crashing, it appears our aim was higher above the knee. This was not just a vote against Europe, but a vote against Westminster and the entirety of mainstream politics. Every political party campaigned hard for a "Remain" vote – but Britain still chose to Leave, even if we’re regretting it this morning.

There are huge areas of post-industrial decline and neglect where people are more furious than Cameron and his ilk could possibly understand, areas where any kind of antiestablishment rabble-rousing sounds like a clarion call. In depressed mountain villages and knackered seaside towns and burned-out former factory heartlands across the country, ordinary people were promised that for once, their vote would matter, that they could give the powers that be a poke in the eye. Westminster may have underestimated how very much it is hated by those to whom mainstream politics have not spoken in generations.

In desperation, the Remain camp begged us to think of the markets. Unfortunately, everyone here hates the markets. Fear-mongering over "the economy" was never going to work when the most deprived areas of the country have already suffered years of savage right-wing austerity in the name of safeguarding "the economy". Those parts of the country clearly felt that things were bad enough already, that they had little enough to lose that they could gamble the rest on the possibility of being lied to. British people are used to being lied to by incompetent spivs in the name of "protecting the economy". Unfortunately, this time the spivs were dead right.

As the tattered remains of the government try to work out what Brexit will actually mean in practice, more damage has already been done to our economy, to our prospects and to the job market than years of open borders ever could have.

In the meantime, the cackling clown-car drivers rolling this catastrophe over the wreckage of civil society are already cheerfully admitting that they lied about their key campaign statements. No, there won’t be £350m more to spend on the NHS, whatever Farage wrote on his battle bus. It turns out that the reason you can’t get a GP appointment isn’t because of immigration, but because the Conservatives have spent six years systematically defunding the health service and cutting public spending to the bone. Brexit will mean more of that, not less.

This was a working-class revolt, but it is not a working-class victory. That’s the tragedy here. The collective howl of rage from depressed, deindustrialised parts of the country bled white and reckless by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron has turned into a triumph for another set of elites. Another banking crisis, another old Etonian in power – that’s what we’ve got to look forward to as Scotland decides when to let go of the rope and the union splinters into jagged shards and we all realise we’re stuck on a rainy rock with Michael Gove, forever.

I wish I could tell you that we’re about to turn this around. I wish I could tell you that we’re about to collectively realise, even at this late hour, the magnitude of our mistake – that we will discover a new capacity for tolerance, a new resilience, a way to recover ourselves and remember our common humanity. I wish I could tell you that the cannibalistic, scattered Left will rally. Today, I don’t want to make any promises. All I see is a lot of racist crowing on the internet and campaigners being told to go back where they came from. I’ve already had people telling me it won’t be long before a new Kristallnacht, and people like me had better go back – where? I was born in London. Perhaps the city can secede. That’ll do wonders for house prices.

This Britain is not my Britain. I want my country back. I want my scrappy, tolerant, forward-thinking, creative country, the country of David Bowie, not Paul Daniels; the country of Sadiq Khan, not Boris Johnson; the country of  J K Rowling, not Enid Blyton; the country not of Nigel Farage, but Jo Cox. That country never existed, not on its own, no more than the country the Leave campaign promised to take us to in their tin-foil time machine. Britain, like everywhere else, has always had its cringing, fearful side, its cruel delusions, its racist fringe movements, its demagogues preying on the dispossessed. Those things are part of us as much as beef wellington and bad dentistry. But in happier times, those things do not overwhelm us. We do not let bad actors reading bad lines in bad faith walk us across the stage to the scaffold. We are better than this.

I believe we can still be better than this. I want my country back, and it’s a country I’ve never known, and getting there will take more strength, more kindness, more resilience than this divided nation has mustered in living memory. Meanwhile, I’m putting the kettle on again. Today is a day for mourning, for retweeting sick memes and holding our loved ones close. Tomorrow – well. Tomorrow, we get to work. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.