Zakhele Mbhele didn't realize his election was historic until a journalist pointed it out to him.
The day after being sworn in to South Africa's parliament on May 21, a friend working for the website Mamba Online called to ask him how it felt to be Africa's first out gay black MP.
"I recognize on an objective level that is historically significant, because it is a milestone," Mbhele told BuzzFeed in a telephone interview. "On a personal level, I'm still trying to make sense of what it means to me."
Mbhele said he started dreaming about becoming an MP six years ago. Mbhele, now 29, spent his early life in Durban, on South Africa's eastern coast, before moving with his family at age 11 to Johannesburg, where he attended the University of the Witwatersrand. That's where he got his start as an activist, heading the school's LGBT organization, and later serving on the board of Johannesburg Pride. He eventually moved to Cape Town and was working as a spokesperson for the premier of the state of Western Cape when he was added to the opposition Democratic Alliance's parliamentary ticket.
Mbhele comes in as a junior member in the opposition party. But his election has symbolic resonance in Africa at a time when countries like Uganda and Nigeria have enacted extreme laws against LGBT rights while claiming homosexuality was imposed by the West. Mbhele also takes office as South Africa, once an essential player in promoting LGBT rights on the international stage, seems to have lost its voice on the issue.
South Africa was once at the forefront of LGBT rights — its post-apartheid constitution, written by the African National Congress then led by Nelson Mandela, made history as the world's first to explicitly protect LGBTI rights, which made possible a landmark 2005 ruling that made South Africa the only country on the continent with marriage equality.
Fast forward to 2014, when the ANC, now led by Jacob Zuma, was instrumental to blocking a parliamentary resolution — tabled by Mbhele's Democratic Alliance — that would have condemned Uganda's new law imposing a sentence of up to life in prison for homosexuality. The government instead issued a statement saying South Africa "takes note of the recent developments" affecting LGBT people around the world, and will "be seeking clarification on these developments from many capitals around the world."
The Zuma government, which began another term when the new parliament was sworn in last week, has a pattern of "speaking with both sides of the mouth and saying different things" on a range of issues, said Mbhele, adding that it has shown the "worst combination" when it comes to responding to threats to LGBTI rights in Africa. On the one hand, Zuma's administration in 2011 sponsored the first resolution on LGBTI rights in the United Nations Human Rights Council, but then never organized a dialogue on the issue in Africa during the round of regional dialogues that followed the resolution's passage.
Mbhele said the government's approach to Uganda was especially troubling, since South Africa's Ambassador Jon Qwelane has faced hate crimes charges in South Africa over a 2008 column he published under the headline, "Call me names, but gay is NOT okay," which praised Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's "unflinching and unapologetic stance over homosexuals."
South Africa's position on the leading edge of LGBTI rights on a continent with some of the most aggressively anti-LGBTI countries is what made its role in promoting LGBTI rights protections in the global human rights framework so important. Without an African partner, diplomats and LGBTI advocates say privately, it's very hard to press the issue within the United Nation system without feeding into the argument that homosexuality is "Western."
Now, Mbhele said, having to confront "fellow African countries kind of changes [South Africa's] enthusiasm for championing human rights when it comes to LGBTI issues."
LGBTI rights is something that Zuma has never embraced, and at times he's been openly hostile. In 2006, he infamously said in 2006 that same-sex marriages were "a disgrace to the nation and to God" and that a gay person "could not stand in front of me" when he was growing up. He later apologized for the remark and has said he is committed to upholding the constitution and the rulings of the court, but many still believe it reflects his true feelings.
Mbhele gave Zuma modest credit for his appointment this week of the country's first out gay cabinet secretary, Lynne Brown, who will serve as public enterprises minister. Brown has not been vocal about being lesbian nor about LGBTI rights, Mbhele said, so he doesn't see it as a gesture of support of LGBTI rights.
But, he said, "It's encouraging that whatever personal prejudices that Zuma may hold and those around him, those aren't enough to block her ascension to that post."
Within South Africa, Mbhele said, the Zuma government deserves credit for some "very encouraging developments," including the convening of a national task force to address the widespread problem of rape and assault aimed at lesbians in the country's townships. The commission had been created several years before, but never convened as federal agencies argued about who had responsibility for it. It finally was spurred to action by en especially horrific murder of Duduzile Zozo, whose body was found in a township east of Johannesburg with a toilet brush shoved up her vagina.
These steps "need to be encouraged and supported," Mbhele said. But there's a limit of what measures against hate crimes can accomplish in the face of fundamental problems in the justice system, including police forces that don't have the resources to investigate crimes and courts that have an overwhelming caseload.
"The fundamental core solution is about how the whole machinery runs as a whole," Mbhele said. "Even in the absence of hate crimes legislation, which I understand is in the pipeline in the short to immediate term ... if you can have consistently higher conviction rates for assault, for rape, for murder, that sends the message that whether you're attacking a lesbian woman or anybody else, there's a very good chance that you'll be caught and you'll face the consequences."
That's partly why he's hoping he'll be given a portfolio that includes oversight of the police, though the decision is up to the party leadership, which will go into session in late June.
But, regardless of whatever portfolio he's given, he said, "I would like to be a voice that champions equality, human rights, and speaks out against prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people and any other vulnerable groups, for that matter."
J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211
Contact J. Lester Feder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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