afrol News, 24 November - The South African decision to legalise same-sex marriages has caught much of Africa by surprise. Being seen as a leading star in the continent's development by many intellectuals, South Africa's acceptance of gays and lesbians causes a discovery of national sexual minorities all over Africa. The debate - that could lead to more liberalisation - has just begun.
The South African Constitutional Court probably did not know about the great consequences of its decision when it last year ruled that parliament needed to amend the marriage bill to allow for same-sex couples, something that was followed up by a large majority of South African MPs earlier this month.
The news spread rapidly to all corners of sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries the issue of homosexuality never had reached national media or legislators. Mostly a taboo or even totally unknown issue among the sexual majority, homosexuality first needed to be explained by the many media breaking the news from South Africa.
For the growing number of gay activists around Africa, this relatively positive first-ever presentation of homosexuality in their national media caused by the South African example seems a God-given gift. In the few countries where a national debate on homosexuality had started before the pro-gay example of South Africa, hateful messages of "non-African practices" and "unnatural, perverse behaviour" had dominated. This was the case in most of English-spoken Southern and East Africa, and in Cameroon.
In the "virgin" countries, however, homosexuality is discovered as a global phenomenon - which is also "African" - that needs to be better understood. First articles on the issue in national media therefore often give a history lesson on homosexuality, discuss the differing medical and religious opinions and often try to find some national representatives to prove that this also happens at home. Both negative and positive views are presented, and mostly no conclusions are drawn.
In Mozambique, homosexuality got a very positive debut in the national press, as the state-owned news agency AIM last month interviewed the country's principal human rights group on its new campaign to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians. The dominant independent weekly 'Savana' went further by interviewing several gay men from a newly started organisation, talking about their experiences of discrimination and presenting their lifestyle in a non-scandalising manner.
The principal national media of Mozambique seemed promoting an improved rights situation for the country's sexual minorities, and government representatives promised to look at the situation. Influence from neighbouring South Africa surely had made a rapid impact on the social dialogue in Mozambique, where the issue of homosexuality has been a no-go debate until last month.
In other Portuguese speaking countries, the South African same-sex legislation also was given much attention, but mostly with the colder look of a foreign news event. Both the 'Jornal de São Tomé' and 'Angola Press' brought European-made coverage of the issue to a puzzled national audience, without relating it to the countries' own sexual minorities.
In Burkina Faso, far, far away from South Africa, the nation's first encounter with the issue was more accidental. A Burkinabe living in France told about his homosexuality on 'TV5', criticising double moral standards in his home country. The interview got picked up by the press in Burkina Faso, advising that the issue was loosing from its inherent taboos.
In the latest issue of 'Bendré', Burkina Faso's leading independent weekly, journalist Jean-Paul Bamogo goes into a larger discussion about homosexuality based on the new South African legislation. In his article "Homosexuality - evolution or regression", he presents - in decent manners of course - the history of homosexuality from male sex preferring Socrates to the "at least 800,000" homosexuals killed in Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Recognising that homosexuality is a reality in Burkina Faso, he however warns that many gays, means society will not reproduce.
Also 'Le Pays', a leading privately-owned Burkinabe daily, last week philosophised whether South Africa's gay marriage law was "luxury or a necessity" and whether one could still call South Africa an African country. The rather balanced article brought few conclusions, except one: "One thing is sure, Africa cannot anymore close its eyes on the phenomenon of homosexuality." While calling the new marriage law "superfluous and premature," 'Le Pays' demonstrated admiration of South Africa's development and indignation over a recent "homophobia campaign" in Cameroon.
In Cameroon, many media worked to improve their coverage of homosexuality as the South African decision sparked a second national debate on the issue within only one year. The last time Cameroonian media looked into the issue, public debate degenerated into an "outing" campaign of prominent politicians and officials, accused of being gay by the tabloid press. More serious media had resisted joining the campaign, which saw sales records for Cameroonian tabloids.
In an article - illustrated with a sensual photo of two kissing men - 'Le Messager' on Tuesday revealed South Africa as "the gay nation". In recognising "leadership role that South Africa legitimately aspires to play in Africa," the newspaper foresees that other countries will soon copy its legalising of gay marriages. While speaking out against homophobia, author Ambroise Ebonda warns that such legislation could lead to the "sacrificing of institution of marriage."
In the English speaking countries where anti-gay government campaigns have been known for a longer time - namely Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Nigeria - the news from South Africa caused negative surprise. In Nigeria, the news of ultra-conservative Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola strongly condemning the marriage law dominated the news. In Uganda, the South African law even caused protests by civil society organisations and churches this week. Churches in Kenya and Tanzania followed suit.
Media have earlier been prosecuted for giving objective or positive coverage of homosexuality in these countries, especially in Uganda. East African newspapers thus only presented condemnations of South Africa's same-sex marriage law. The many years of public discussion - although exclusively negatively - in the region however have left a new generation more positive on giving homosexuals more rights, recent studies show.
Also in French speaking Africa, not all first reactions to the South African legislation were positive. In Congo Brazzaville, authorities were caught by surprise when recently asked about the liberalisation process in South Africa. The Brazzaville government could not come up with another answer than saying "homosexuality does not exist in Congo." The press has so far not tried to prove government wrong.
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