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Southern Africa Report Archive

Marc Epprecht suggests, in this companion article to Iden Wetherell's article, in this same issue of SAR, that Mugabe's tactic of vicious attacks on gays in Zimbabwe, may yet backfire on him politically (internationally if not nationally).

vol 11 no 4

Gay bashing in Zimbabwe: II - Outing the gay debate
Marc Epprecht

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
Page 14



Marc Epprecht teaches history at the University of Zimbabwe and is author of several articles on gender and history in southern Africa.

President Mugabe's "anti-homo" campaign following the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995 met with intense criticism and even mockery in the international community. Perhaps most galling to Zimbabwean nationalists on this score was the not-so- discreet condescension shown in some South African papers. Zimbabwe's major aid donors meanwhile applied direct pressure upon Mugabe to temper his remarks. Many Zimbabweans were taken aback by such a strong reaction against what they understand as an internal "cultural" matter. Tolerance of homosexuality (if not homosexuality itself) has thus been widely cited as yet another intolerable case of Western imperialism. The issue is still commonly alluded to in resentful or sarcastic terms in the pro- government media on topics as varied as structural adjustment and corporal punishment in schools.

African nationalists certainly have a point. Who needs reminding that Western hypocrisy on human rights is profound, not least of all on this issue? Compared to Pat Buchanan or to the murderous "gay-bashing" which takes place in North America, Zimbabweans as a whole actually have good reason to be proud of their basically tolerant and reasonable attitude. For example, notwithstanding the vehemence of Mugabe's denunciations of homosexuality and the sometimes violent rhetoric of his supporters, neither violence nor systematic intimidation of gays and lesbians have ensued. The organization which supposedly offended African values so deeply last year (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe or GALZ) has been granted permission to display its publications at this year's book fair. Even the government-controlled Herald has adopted what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards homosexuality. It often reports non-judgementally on gay rights activities in the West and its editorial line appears to favour the decriminalization of consenting homosexual sex between adults. In this way, it is helping to create an ideological space for acceptance of homosexuality in a society which has traditionally regarded it as offensive or nonsensical.

Nonetheless, the bitter debate about whether homosexuals are people deserving the same human rights as other citizens or whether they are "like dogs" (as Mugabe asserted) may be on the verge of a reprise. GALZ has sensibly restrained ambitions for this year's book fair (mainly to publicize its counselling services and answer stereotypical questions about what is homosexuality). However, there is a strong possibility that foreign publishers may display "obscene" or deliberately provocative materials. Freelance homophobes may also disrupt the fair. This possibility is coming at a sensitive time as Zimbabwe is presently negotiating to host the World Council of Churches conference in 1998. The WCC has made it clear that homosexuality will be on the agenda, that it leans towards a liberal policy on the issue, and that it will not tolerate the harassment of its members who are homosexual. This puts it on a direct collision course with many Zimbabwean church leaders and could again bring the country's reputation into international disrepute.

The opening salvo in the looming contest came last month when the president of the Zimbawean Council of Churches denounced homosexuality as a sin about which there could be no compromise. Bishop Jonathan Siyachitema called for "the law to take its course," meaning that homosexuals should be imprisoned and their literature or educational materials impounded and destroyed. His predecessor as Anglican bishop (Bishop Hatendi) weighed in about a week later with a rambling letter to the Herald. While he suggested that the Christian churches in Zimbabwe which tolerate homosexuality are "parrots" of the West, and while he equated homosexuality with HIV/AIDS as another infamous "import," Bishop Hatendi called for an investigation into the actual history of homosexuality in Zimbabwe.

Contradictory as Hatendi's letter was, it was a breakthrough in an important sense. For the first time, a respected public personage suggested that instinctive reaction may have to be qualified if history provided sufficient evidence for tolerance. Interestingly, the Herald has not published any letters in response, for or against. It appears that the editor has decided to stop a debate which seems certain ultimately to embarrass President Mugabe. This could also explain the sudden removal of Siyachitema as president of the ZCC (July 4) and his replacement by a man of more moderate reputation and sense of discretion. Negotiations between the WCC, ZCC, GALZ, donors, and the government will continue outside the glare of public controversy.

History tells more

This hushed approach may actually be more reflective of Zimbabwean traditions than the confrontational, obsessive homophobia of Christian mission-educated leaders such as Mugabe and Siyachitema. The fact is, homosexual practices were known among black Zimbabweans prior to the coming of whites. They were almost certainly quite rare and they were talked about even less. This rarity can easily be explained without essentialist arguments about African culture or nature. In pre-colonial Zimbabwe, as throughout the region, wealth was primarily measured in people. Children, in addition to their social importance, were also valued as crucial economic and political assets. Heterosexual marriage was the vocation those children were taught from their earliest years. It was also virtually the only sensible path to a relatively secure old-age. Choosing not to marry was thus simply not a viable life choice, for men and women alike with rare exceptions. Sex for non-reproductive purposes was considered evidence of immaturity or witchcraft.

Universal heterosexual marriage, it must be emphasized, does not necessarily denote universal heterosexual orientation. African cultures throughout the region in fact provide mechanisms to ensure that sterile marriages could still appear to be fruitful. Hence, a man who was "gay" in orientation and repulsed by the very thought of sex with his wife, could invite her to take her own lovers. Lobola ("bride price") ensured that any offspring would be socially recognized as his. Fictions about his own social manhood, with all the economic and political benefits which accrued to it, could be maintained regardless of his actual sexual feelings.

The silence of the guardians of custom, of anthropologists and of Native Commissioners (who tried civil offenses in the rural areas in the colonial years) should therefore not be taken to prove that homosexuality did not exist. Rather, the silence was a way of expressing disapproval of a known phenomenon. Rare admissions of this have been preserved in colonial court documents. In 1921, for example, a Mazoe headman told a Salisbury magistrate that "native custom" dictated a fine of one beast for attempted sodomy. This put the "crime" at about the same level of disapproval as other sexual crimes like adultery.

That ambiguous sexual feelings existed among Africans prior to the coming of whites is also strongly suggested by the appearance of homosexual "crimes" in the very first year of operation of the colonial courts. In 1892, five cases of sodomy and indecent assault by men upon men or boys were tried in Salisbury and Umtali. Of these only one involved a whiteman. Over the next thirty years, hundreds of other such cases are recorded, the overwhelming majority of which were Africans "assaulting" Africans. They took place at the mines, on commercial farms, in urban compounds, at police camps, in prisons, and even in the townships where female prostitutes were readily available. In most of these cases the men practiced safe sex, that is, ejaculation between the thighs. The men were from both outside and within Zimbabwe.

A small number of the accused appeared before the courts as repeat offenders, and we may probably assume that these men actually were "gay" in the sense of preferring sex with other males over sex with women. The majority of cases, however, seem to have been men who considered themselves heterosexual. They only indulged in sex with males for what we might call strategic or convenience reasons. Finding a proper wife was difficult for migrant workers while prostitutes were often downright dangerous. In the cramped quarters which migrant workers commonly shared, their bodies squeezed against each other under a single blanket, sex between men also commonly happened "by accident."

Now courts, by their nature, give testimony to non-consensual rather than consensual sex. People in love or who have made mutually agreeable economic arrangements rarely appear before them. Not surprisingly, therefore, the courts of early colonial Zimbabwe principally record cases involving "accidents," "dreams," homosexual rape or coercion of "picannins" (boys or young men). Yet ample evidence also attests to relatively long-term, apparently stable homosexual relationships which went sour. In one case from Kadoma in 1915, the "husband" actually paid lobola for his "wife" to his "father-in-law." The "marriage" came to court because the "wife" was unhappy with the presents he was receiving.

Homosexual relationships among men were in fact commonly mediated by cash and presents in much the same way as scholars have found in the "mine marriages" of Johannesburg (see T. Dunbar Moodie's and Patrick Harries' recent books on male migrant culture in South Africa). In other words, Zimbabwe was typical of other industrializing areas in the region. When large numbers of men were uprooted from their communities and denied the means to manhood as it was traditionally understood, they developed new expressions of masculinity. This included not only relatively open homosexuality (including ritual transvestism at some mines). Signifiers of real manliness for African men in this oppressive context also included heterosexual prostitution and predatory (as opposed to responsible, marriage and child-oriented) sex.

To identify a relationship between racial capitalist structures, urbanization, and increasingly divergent sexual identities and practices among Africans is not the same as saying "the whites did it!" (that is, introduced perversion). On the contrary, African men who engaged in homosexual practices were acutely conscious that whites disapproved. One of the striking ironies of the "anti-homo" chauvinism of Zimbabwean nationalists these days is that eighty or a hundred years ago it was Europeans who were most vocally scandalized by African men's behaviour. There was much hypocrisy in this regard, no doubt, but the salient point is that African men did not look to Europeans for lessons.

Simplistic, functionalist or apologetic explanations of male homosexual practices are clearly difficult to sustain in the face of the historical evidence. There has been a diversity of homosexual relationships among African men which is all the more remarkable given the disapproving glare of both custom and colonial ideologies. Although historical evidence of female sexuality is infinitely more difficult to come by, we may probably assume that it was similarly more diverse than cultural chauvinists would like us to believe.

At present, GALZ is keeping a low profile, leaving such research (and even some of their own leadership) to straights and foreigners. They have, however, quietly but significantly strengthened their position over the past year. Above all they have acquired formidable international friends, including those with cash. The Dutch agency Hivos has donated $600,000 to GALZ as a part of its mandate to help build a plural and democratic society. This will enable it to open a permanent office with paid rather than volunteer co-ordinators. South of the border, sexual orientation has been enshrined as a human right in the new constitution, promising the emergence of a lively and politically combative queer community there. Voices have also emerged within Zimbabwe to challenge the party line. The recent launch of the sympathetic weekly newspaper, Zimbabwe Independent, promises to provide an especially influential voice on this issue.

Clearly, matters relating to sexuality are difficult at any time in any context. Here in Zimbabwe they are all the more sensitive on account of the long history of imperialist moralizing and hypocrisy. Yet the climate is changing. At least one in ten Zimbabweans is HIV positive and debate about sexual practices is necessarily coming out into the open. Matters which were hitherto considered shameful are now routinely discussed in the mass media. In sharp contrast to the knee-jerk homophobia of some leaders, the more pronounced trend is thus toward increasingly forthright discussions of sexuality and patriarchy, of which homophobia is an important aspect. This surely bodes well both for people's health and for the emergence of a kind of democracy which is inclusive and respectful of minority groups.

One thing is certain. If the "anti-homo" campaign does take off again this year, Zimbabwean intellectuals will be less able than before to sit on the fence or to hide behind specious arguments about culture or "there are more pressing issues." It promises to be a lively fair.

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