A Soft Voice on Gay Rights

Published: March 20, 2014

 CAPE TOWN — South Africa’s government has come under fire from opposition parties and activists for failing to condemn a new wave of homophobic laws in Uganda and Nigeria that mandate jail time for same-sex spouses or those affiliated with gay organizations. 

 
Instead of denouncing fellow African nations for cracking down on their gay citizens, the South African government has decided to use diplomatic channels to “seek clarification” from Uganda and Nigeria. This is the government’s way of saying it wants to use existing diplomatic relationships to quietly talk these countries down from their positions, which have hardened in the face of the widespread condemnation. 
 
Critics of South Africa’s policy argue that it parallels Richard M. Nixon’s “tar baby” and Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policies, during which the United States maintained and strengthened relations with South Africa’s apartheid regime at a time when the liberation movement was demanding that the international community impose sanctions and divest from the country. These detractors expect that a country with South Africa’s history of oppression and its constitutional commitment to upholding human rights of sexual minorities would join the United States, Britain and the European Union in condemning Uganda and Nigeria, and possibly threatening economic sanctions of its own.
 
Although the government has been pilloried for its silence in the face of legally enshrined homophobia, its stance is actually consistent with how it has approached other issues on the African continent. Indeed, it’s part of the same foreign policy thinking that motivated South Africa to pursue a mediated settlement to end the Libyan civil war in 2011, as well as its ongoing criticism of the International Criminal Court.
 
The idea of “African solutions for African problems” also undergirds South Africa’s continued engagement with the government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe — seen by many as a diplomatic leper. 
 
As despicable as the Nigerian and Ugandan anti-gay laws are, critics have failed to grasp the government’s broader goal of carving out a role for South Africa as an adversary of imperialism and a champion of human rights on the continent. Such a role has become necessary as leaders of fellow African states grow increasingly, and perhaps rightly, wary of foreign powers sidelining the African Union and appearing to impinge on the sovereignty of African nations. 
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