Post submitted by Yushuang Sun, HRC Global Engagement Intern.
On May 21st, South Africa's Parliament made history by swearing in the continent’s first openly gay, black member. Zakhele Mbhele, representing the official opposition party, the DA, has worked on issues regarding LGBT rights and race relations for many years. He led the University of the Witwatersand’s LGBT group while attending college, and later served on the board of Johannesburg Pride. A week after Mbhele’s election, Lynne Brown was appointed as the country’s first lesbian minister in the cabinet. These victories are two strides forward on the continent in the wake of much homophobic backlash in recent months.
In a telephone interview with BuzzFeed, Mbhele said: “I recognize on an objective level that [his being elected to Parliament] is historically significant, because it is a milestone.” He also expressed his willingness to dedicate himself in fighting for LGBT rights. Mbhele said, “I would like to be a voice that champions equality, human rights, and speaks out against prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people and any other vulnerable groups.”
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutional and legal frameworks in the world that protects the equality and universal rights of LGBT individuals. The post-apartheid constitution, which came into force in 1996, outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Subsequent legislation was introduced to decriminalize same-sex sexual activity and equalize the age of consent. In 2006, the country became the fifth state in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Gay and lesbian couples are entitled to marry, adopt children, and receive equal access to IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatment and surrogacy services. In addition, South Africa was also the first nation to sponsor a resolution on LGBT rights in the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Despite all these legal commitments, LGBT individuals in South Africa still face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence. They are subject to social stigma, hate crimes, police brutality and killings. Some South African men have been guilty of “corrective rape” in a brutal and misguided attempt to “cure” women of being lesbians. According to a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, 62 percent of South Africans consider homosexuality unacceptable. Mbhele hopes his victory can inspire young LGBT South Africans to counter the damage they are suffering and restore self-esteem.