Africa: State-Sponsored Homophobia in Southern Africa Abuses and Culture of Intolerance Documented

For Immediate Release: May 14, 2003

For additional information, please contact:
In San Francisco, Paula Ettelbrick: +1-917-612-3126 (cell)
In Cape Town, Widney Brown (report co-author): +27-722-026-255 (cell)
In New York, Scott Long (report co-author): +1-212-865-5536

(CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA) - Many leaders in southern Africa have singled out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as scapegoats for their countries' problems, Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) said today.

The two international human rights monitoring organizations are today releasing a new book-length report, More Than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and its Consequences in Southern Africa. The 298-page report documents pervasive harassment and violence against sexual minorities in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

"Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been vilified by presidents and political leaders, which has led to a culture of intolerance," said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of IGLHRC. "These attacks are just the first step in creating a climate in which all rights are at risk."

The report documents verbal attacks, police harassment, official crackdowns, and community violence aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Victims have been assaulted, imprisoned, expelled from schools, fired from jobs, denied access to medical care, evicted from their homes, and driven into exile or, in some cases, to suicide.

"When Southern African political leaders like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe make speeches saying that gays and lesbians are 'worse than dogs and pigs,' it should be no surprise that violent attacks follow," said Scott Long of Human Rights Watch, co-author of the report.

The report also examines South Africa, which in 1996, newly freed from apartheid, became the first country in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution. Based on interviews with numerous individuals and activists, the report concludes that the equality guaranteed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people is fragile, and even endangered by the silence and foot-dragging of political leaders in South Africa.

Human Rights Watch and IGLHRC called on the governments of all five countries to refrain from promoting intolerance and from inciting discrimination and abuse. Other recommendations include:

  • repealing laws, including "sodomy laws," which violate human rights including rights to privacy and freedom of expression;
  • enacting positive protections against discrimination;
  • publicizing and promoting awareness of rights protections and how to use them; and
  • creating mechanisms to address discrimination and abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Below are three testimonies from the report.

"Fatima," a sixteen year-old Zimbabwean gay man, tells how police abused him in November, 2000:

That Saturday night we had come from the [Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe] center. Me and my friend Robert slept for three hours, and then we woke up and it was Sunday morning, and we said, let's go out.

We went to a place called the Eight Miles Shopping Center, in Southerton [a suburb of Harare]. We were sitting in a little terrace. It was about 10:30 a.m. I had put a bandanna in my hair, which had a kind of a British flag pattern in it.

One of the men near the terrace, he called me over. "Come here," he said. And then he started saying to me, "You homosexuals, are you British? You want to make this country like your country, a gay country. Our president was beaten up in London, and here you are, demonstrating."

I said, "It is just a bandanna, I didn't know there was a problem." Suddenly there were four people all over us, all plainclothes police. They showed us their I.D.s, they were CIO [Central Intelligence Organization, the presidential security police]. They handcuffed me and threw me in a car. They called my friend over, and they said to us, "You gay people, you should be killed." …

They beat my friend. They didn't beat me then, but they beat him until he was bleeding. They were slapping his face till he was bleeding from the ears. Other people were around, and were just watching, but I heard some of them saying, "They are beating the homosexuals." Then they stopped another car-the driver was also a policeman-and put Robert in it. They said to the driver, "Take this homosexual and drop him somewhere far from town." I thought that would be it, I thought no one would ever see us again.

Then there was just me left. And they kept me in the car and drove around with me. They would stop from place to place, in a field or a parking lot, and beat me, on the chest and the face. That went on until night, with me handcuffed. Finally the officers took me to a police station called Braeside. It was night by then, and they handed me over to the policemen there.

They threw me into a cell and took off the handcuffs. There were other prisoners there, six of them. They said, "Here's a homosexual. You can do whatever you want with him. You can have sex with him if you want."

For some reason the prisoners left me alone. I was pretty bruised. I slept there one night. In the morning, the policemen said I would have to pay a fine, Z$100 [U.S.$4], because I was doing prostitution.

A friend paid the fine. They gave me a booklet and said, I must write down everywhere I go, and the CIO would come and check it.

Carlos Mpofu, a twenty-year-old Zimbabwean, told Human Rights Watch:

I had always been beaten up by other boys for being too much a girl. And it got worse as I grew older. … Once two friends and I were walking around 8:00 in the evening in Entumbane [a high-density suburb of Bulawayo]. A mob of people, ten or fifteen of them, started chasing us, throwing stones and calling us names. They were still a ways away when they started throwing stones, and we managed to escape: we ran and hid in the bushes.

And one Sunday morning in April 2000, in broad daylight, these friends and I were walking near the Pie City in the center of town. I got hit by three guys who said, "You are gay, we have seen you in the clubs." And to me they said, "You thought you were too good to talk to us." They hit me and I hit back. I got a burst lip and lots of bruises. I went to the police and reported it at Bulawayo Central. They seemed helpful at first; but they never followed it up.

A lot of bad things happen here around the [Gays and Lesbians of Matabeleland] center-we rent this house on the line between two districts in Bulawayo, with Bellevue on the one side and Nketa on the other. Bellevue is lower-density and more peaceful, but Nketa is pretty rough. There are a lot of young guys there with time on their hands. They know the center is here, and they hate us and harass us all the time.

Two friends and I had a mob come after us in June 2000, trying to beat us up for being gay. It was 7 or 8 p.m., after dark. There were about thirty of them, some with bricks, sharp objects, chains; others were throwing stones. One of us had to jump in a moving vehicle. The other friend and I ran in opposite directions. We had just come from the shops-we used to go to the nearest shops, in Nketa, back then. We have stopped going over there since; we will walk the two kilometers to Bellevue to shop instead.

Life is hard. I realize how many people hate us for being homosexual, even our own blood. And I have to wonder why.

Joyce, an HIV-positive South African lesbian, describes the abuse she endured as punishment for her openness about her sexuality and serostatus:

My daughter was raped when she was six because of my coming out and telling people about HIV. They were trying to shut my mouth. But they didn't stop me. I was only happy that she was not infected, although she was young. It makes me angry but I'm working on that. It's been three years but she's fine and she's a very clever child….

I was working at Baragwanath [Baragwanath Chris Hani Hospital in Soweto] doing voluntary work. It's next to my place, it's not far away, so most of the people I was seeing were from my community. So [the rapists] were trying to say, "Look, you don't have to come here, you're not a doctor, you don't have to tell us how to live although we're HIV-positive." …

In Soweto when you come out and say, "Hey, I'm a lesbian," …they're always asking "Where are they from? They're not from here, we don't see people like this." Then you find out that it's because of their sexuality why women are being raped.

The report is available on the IGLHRC website. Please access it through the following link: Southern Africa Report


The mission of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is to secure the full enjoyment of the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation or expression, gender identity or expression, and/or HIV status. A US-based non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), IGLHRC effects this mission through advocacy, documentation, coalition building, public education, and technical assistance.

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