In South Africa, lesbian murder case highlights justice system's slow response
Human Rights Watch calls the April murder of Noxolo Nogwaza a hate crime. Local gay-rights activists say that police and judges need to be trained to take the crimes committed against gay South Africans more seriously.
Johannesburg, South Africa
The murder of a prominent lesbian activist, followed swiftly afterward by the rape of a lesbian teenager in the attempt to “cure” her of homosexuality, has brought South Africa’s mixed feelings about homosexuality to the fore.Skip to next paragraph
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On paper, South Africa is one of the most liberal countries in the world, allowing homosexual couples to marry and enjoy full legal rights as spouses. But this liberalism in the courtroom is not always reflected in the attitudes of the people on the streets or the policemen and judges who are called upon to address these crimes.
South Africa has one of the highest incidents of rape in the world, although police statistics show that the number of reported cases has been dropping recently. In a disturbing survey taken in June 2009 by the Medical Research Council, 25 percent of men admitted to having committed rape. In a separate survey by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency (a lobby group), 1 out of 3 women in a sampling of 4,000 reported being raped in the past year.
In the April 24 murder of lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza – apparently stoned to death and gang-raped in the Kwa-Thema township after a barroom altercation – police have made no arrests. Lesbian and gay activists in South Africa say that police often don’t take crimes against homosexuals seriously.
“If we go to a police station we get discriminated against, and we hear many of the same kinds of comments that we hear from people on the street, so no wonder we face these problems,” says Ndumie Funda, director of Luleki Sizwe, a lesbian rights support group in the Cape Town neighborhood of Nyanga. “There is procrastination in the justice system. Cases get postponed, and the police are not dealing with the victims and their families. The police need to be trained to deal with cases like this.”
Battling entrenched views
Activists say that the solution is much deeper than simply issuing public condemnations and promising swift justice. As in Uganda, where conservative Christian parliamentarians have attempted to change their laws to make homosexuality a death-penalty offense, traditional beliefs in both the white and black communities in South Africa can be strongly antipathetic to homosexuality. Efforts to temper those traditional beliefs, and to encourage Christian pastors to tone down their anti-gay rhetoric will be an effort that must be sustained, advocates say.