South Africa Oks Gays in Its Military

With barely a murmur of debate, South Africa's government has agreed to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military, joining just a handful of nations with that policy.

Few people here raised objections because the South African Constitution, adopted this month, directly outlaws discrimination by sexual orientation. In this respect, it's believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.

While the practical implications still have to be worked out, the South African National Defense Force now joins counterparts in Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands in adopting the principle.

The new Constitution, adopted on May 8, bars discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation as well as race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, conscience, belief, culture, and language.

Seen as a discrimination issue

Only two years into multiracial democracy under President Nelson Mandela after decades of apartheid, now-ruling African National Congress politicians are deeply sensitive to accusations that they support any form of discrimination.

"The gay lobby was very successful getting it accepted as a human rights issue.... Even the [conservative] National Party [which ruled during the apartheid years] - if you tell them this is an issue of discrimination, they melt away. They all say they are for equality," says Pierre de Vos, a constitutional lawyer and parliamentary lobbyist.

The antiracist culture of the liberation movement "informed our approach" to homosexual issues, which is why the party pushed for gay rights clauses to be included in the Constitution and then the defense policy paper, explains Tony Yengeni, member of the ANC and chairman of Parliament's standing committee on defense. The defense department had submitted a White Paper, or policy paper, to the Parliament confirming an end to discrimination against gays in the military.

But not all approved

The small, fundamentalist African Christian Democratic Party put up a lonely fight against the move. That party's member of Parliament, Louis Green, argues homosexuality, as an "acquired lifestyle," should not enjoy the same protection as race or gender.

"We believe the gay community is riding on the back of the liberation movement," says Mr. Green. "It was noble to fight against apartheid. Unfortunately, gay-rights activists hijacked this."

But once the new Constitution was enacted, even Green's party didn't fight it, arguing only that soldiers be given a "right of conscientious objection" to dissociate themselves from colleagues who may be gay.

The National Party, which remains the second-strongest in Parliament after the ANC, also accepted the constitutional provision applied to the military, even if it was not totally comfortable with the idea.

"We have one of the most liberal bills of rights in the world. It is a tide, and you cannot swim against it. We can live with the Bill of Rights as it stands, and with the white paper as it stands," says Gerhard Koornhof, the party's chief spokesman on defense.

But how the policy decision will translate into action remains to be seen. The policy paper says the minister of defense will appoint a work group to "facilitate and monitor the implementation," and that the Military Discipline Code is being revised to ensure there are no clashes with the Constitution. A statement by the Defense Force says that it will not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, but "any sexual, atypical, and immoral behavior that proves to be detrimental to maintaining military discipline is unacceptable."

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