For 10 minutes or so, the Wits Art Museum resembled a Pentecostal revivalist meeting. Hands were raised in worship as the crowd swayed and sang hymns. On stage, two pastors lay their hands on the person kneeling in front of them, the subject of their passionate prayers.
This was not supposed to be. Not because this was an arts event (and generally, artists are too cool to do God), but more because this was a gathering of mostly LGBTIs — Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex human beings — to honour one of their own, Zanele Muholi. LGBTIs are generally damned to hell. Yet it was Muholi who started it all when she came to the stage, announcing that nothing could be done without God, implying that she would not have achieved what she had without God, and then proceeding to call up her pastoral friends to lead the worship and prayers.
The event was hosted by the Netherlands Embassy as the Prince Claus Fund — a Dutch fund that, among other things, supports artists working under challenging conditions particularly in the global south — was in town to recognise Muholi with an award for her work as a photographic artist documenting and highlighting the lives and difficulties of LGBTI people in South Africa.
The night before, I saw Hate Radio, a play about RTLM, a radio station whose propaganda fuelled the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. RTLM spewed hate against Tutsis, likening them to cockroaches, and urging on the slaughter. Work colleagues turned on each other, neighbour turned on neighbour, friend on friend as more than 800 000 people were hacked to death over a 100-day period.
Even priests and nuns were found guilty of participation in the genocide. One priest ordered militiamen to set fire to a church and then bulldoze it while 2 000 people sought shelter inside. A Catholic nun was sentenced to 30 years for helping militia to murder people hiding in a hospital. Two other nuns were jailed by a Belgian court for their role in aiding and abetting the killings. One of the nuns had called Hutu soldiers, telling them where Tutsis were hiding, and the soldiers proceeded to stone, hack and burn 5 000 people to death. The other nun supplied petrol to militia to set alight a garage on the convent grounds in which 700 people died.
There are many who would shake their heads in disbelief at such barbarism, and others would shake their heads more at the thought that “people of God” could be responsible for, and be involved in such acts of brutal, murderous hatred.
Africa now has its new “cockroaches” — LGBTIs. And it is “people of God” who have again shown themselves to be high priests of hate. Much has been written about the influence of some American churches and missionaries on Uganda’s harsh anti-gay law that could impose life imprisonment on homosexuals as well as jail sentences for individuals and organisations that do not report homosexuals to the authorities. In the equivalent of Rwanda’s RTLM radio, one Uganda tabloid supported an earlier version of the Act that called for the death penalty for homosexuals by publishing the photographs, names and addresses of 100 “top” suspected gays and lesbians under the headline “Hang Them!”. Soon after, a leading gay activist was bludgeoned to death. After the signing into law of the final version of the act, another tabloid published the names of “200 top gays” in Uganda, the media feeding the hate frenzy.
Last month, after Nigeria passed its anti-gay laws, there were reports of suspected gay men being forced to strip naked and march through the streets before being beaten up.
Lest we become self-righteous about our Constitution and laws that protect gay rights, we need to remind ourselves about why Muholi was receiving this award from a foreign agency and government. In 2009, Muholi had an exhibition featuring photographs of naked women at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, an affirmation of loving lesbian relationships. The then minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, was to open the exhibition (her department had provided funding for it) but she walked out in disgust, protesting the “immoral” and “pornographic” photographs and suggesting through her spokesperson that the mandate of the department was to promote social cohesion and nation-building, and that this exhibition did the opposite! Despite our much vaunted Constitution which ministers swear to uphold, this minister did not consider lesbians as part of the nation. (Rather than be fired for contravening the Constitution, Xingwana is now in charge of the ministry to defend the rights of women, children and people with disabilities). Muholi’s recent exhibition at the Wits Art Museum includes work that highlights the wave of “corrective rape” and the murders of numerous black lesbians. Even in South Africa, among our senior politicians, among ordinary people, and “people of faith”, LGBTIs are “cockroaches”, sub-humans and it is this “othering” that creates the context for LGBTIs to be abused, brutalised and killed. Yet it was not so long ago that black people were considered as less than human, that “blacks were baboons”, and so could be abused, brutalised and killed with impunity.
As a result of the Rwandan genocide in which many church leaders were complicit, numerous Rwandans converted to Islam because of the protection provided to Tutsis by Muslim Hutus during the genocide. Muslims now constitute a more significant proportion of the population of a once mostly Catholic country.
Ironically, it is Islam that is often reviled as the religion of fundamentalist extremists for who human life has little value. And yet, in this case, it is Christian fundamentalists promoting state terrorism against people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, and who create the conditions for hate speech and acts of hate against LGBTIs, at least some of who may actually share their faith. Spreading hate in the name of their God against others who may believe in the same God.
There are many church leaders — internationally and in their own countries — who have denounced Uganda’s (and Nigeria’s) anti-gay legislation just as there were church leaders who opposed the Rwandan genocide.
But what about people who subscribe to the Christian faith across Africa who are silent or apathetic about these laws being passed and enforced in the name of their God? Whatever their theological beliefs, or whether they agree with a gay lifestyle or not, do they really believe that people — on the basis of their sexual orientation — should be exposed, vilified, raped, imprisoned, killed? Will Christians in Uganda — under threat of imprisonment — refuse to report people who they know to be homosexuals to the authorities?
And when the extremists from other religions or ideological persuasions come for the “Christian infidels” — as they have and do in Egypt, in Nigeria, in Kenya — shall we turn the other way?
Image – A young man prays, February 21 2004, at the church of “Mere de Dieu” in Kibeho, Rwanda, where thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by the Hutu militia during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Tens of thousands of believers were massacred in churches were they sought refuge, often with the complicity of the same clergymen.(AFP)