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.

By , Staff writer

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    In this May 6 photo, a woman approaches a ditch where Noxolo Nogwaza's body was found bludgeoned to death late last month, in Kwa-Thema, east of Johannesburg.
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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.

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.

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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.

“Police and other South African officials fail to acknowledge that members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community are raped, beaten, and killed simply because of how they look or identify, and they are attacked by men who then walk freely, boasting of their exploits," said Dipika Nath, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a press statement calling for Nogwaza’s murder to be treated as a hate crime. “If the police and other state officials do not act swiftly, it will only be a matter of time before they have to account for their failure to the family and friends of the next lesbian who is beaten and killed in Kwa-Thema.”

Nogwaza was founder of the Ekurhuleni Pride Organizing Committee, which had organized gay-pride marches in Kwa-Thema and other townships. On the night of April 23, she had an argument at a bar near Kwa-Thema with men who had tried to proposition her female friend. Her body was found the next day, in an alley, apparently stoned to death and with signs of rape.

Violence against gays takes other forms, such as “corrective rape,” a mistaken belief that a lesbian girl can be “cured” if she is forced to have sex with a man. Such an attack happened last Thursday in Pretoria, when a 13-year-old girl (her name withheld for her protection), reported being raped because she was a lesbian.

Groups like Luleki Sizwe can reach out to such victims to give them shelter, but they can’t change the broader culture, at least not without the help of government, society leaders, and the media, says Ms. Funda. “We have given shelter in 10 different cases since we started in 2008,” she says. “Whenever there is a case, you need to attend to the needs of victims.”

Talking to churches, parents

But the bigger battle is to confront the larger problem of people’s attitudes.

“Our object is lobbying and advocacy, talking to churches, talking to mothers and fathers, engaging with the community,” says Ms. Funda. “If we are just engaging with gay and lesbian NGOs, we are going toing to change the way people think. Already the pastors and the police, they are listening more. Let’s take this thing forward.”

“Police and other South African officials fail to acknowledge that members of the LGBT community are raped, beaten, and killed simply because of how they look or identify, and they are attacked by men who then walk freely, boasting of their exploits," said Ms. Nath, the researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the police and other state officials do not act swiftly, it will only be a matter of time before they have to account for their failure to the family and friends of the next lesbian who is beaten and killed in Kwa-Thema.”

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