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.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

Show Hide image

It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the trade union leadership

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.