OPINION: Mompati, Maimane and the gays

Does it matter if our representatives don't approve of homosexuality, as long as they don't actively obstruct progress on gay rights?

This week, I opened myself up to a world of pain on social media. A day after ANC stalwart Ruth Mompati had died, I pointed out on Twitter that although Mompati had spent her life fighting for the freedom of black South Africans and women, there's some evidence to suggest she didn't feel similarly about the emancipation of gay people.

British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell - himself not an uncontroversial figure for his habit of sticking his nose into developing world affairs - has written about his experience of lobbying ANC leaders in exile to try to secure a commitment to upholding gay rights after apartheid.

Tatchell's fear, he wrote, was that "a post-Apartheid, ANC-ruled South Africa might pursue the same kind of anti-gay policies that were common in other revolutionary states, such as Cuba, the Soviet Union and China".

Tatchell duly requested an interview with Mompati in August 1987, when she was in London to promote Women's Day. At the end of the interview, Tatchell records, he asked Mompati about the rights of lesbians and their role in the struggle against apartheid.

"I hope that in a liberated South Africa people will live a normal life", Mompati told him. "I emphasise the word normal ... Tell me, are lesbians and gays normal? No, it is not normal."

Mompati continued: "I cannot even begin to understand why people want lesbian and gay rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don't see them suffering. No one is persecuting them ... We haven't heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West."

You may say that Mompati was simply a product of her time, though that's a defence that rarely seems to wash very well these days when applied to historical racism, as opposed to homophobia. The truth is that there were others within the ANC, even at that time, who were less shortsighted and prejudiced on the issue than Mompati.

Thabo Mbeki subsequently wrote to Tatchell to distance the ANC from Mompati's comments. "I would like to believe that that my colleagues, Solly Smith and Ruth Mompati, did not want to suggest in any way that a free South Africa would want to see gays discriminated against or subjected to any form of repression," Mbeki wrote. He affirmed the ANC's commitment to "removing all forms of discrimination and oppression in a liberated South Africa".

Mompati was wrong, as Mbeki understood.

There were significant contributions made by lesbians and gays to the anti-apartheid movement - most notably, perhaps, by Simon Nkoli, who was imprisoned following the Delmas treason trial. Current Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota, who was jailed with Nkoli, later said: "How could we say that men and women like Simon, who had put their shoulders to the wheel to end apartheid, how could we say that they should now be discriminated against?"

How indeed?

In raising the issue of Mompati's views on gays on Twitter, I didn't intend to detract from the rest of Mompati's magnificent sacrifice. It simply struck me as an intriguing blind spot: that a woman as committed to freedom as Mompati was could have - in the worst interpretation - sought to exclude gays from the full human rights she was fighting for on the grounds of their 'abnormality'; and in the best interpretation, have felt that gay rights were a kind of indulgent irrelevance.

I admit I don't know whether Mompati's views changed on the matter over time, as many others' would have. I'd like to hope so.

It was doubtless churlish of me to have raised this issue so soon after Mompati's death. The mantra that "no ill shall be spoken of the recently dead" runs deeply through the South African consciousness across cultures. (Witness the flak copped by academic Chris Thurman when he dared write a brutally candid assessment of rugby boss Louis Luyt shortly after Luyt's death.)

Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the speed and force of the backlash. I was also unnerved by the thread running through most of the responses: that gay rights are somehow in a sub-category of human rights; and that gay rights are of relevance only to white South Africans.

"So in 1987 while been treated like a 2nd class being, you wanted Africans to fight for gays as well?? The audacity of you people," one person wrote.

"You need to accept what you deem important actually isn't to a lot of people - gay rights included," a journalist rebuked me.

Ironically, though many people criticised me for judging 1987 Mompati by today's progressive standards, these are extremely similar responses to those Mompati gave to Tatchell 28 years ago.

Whatever Mompati's personal views on homosexuality, she was part of a leadership group of anti-apartheid activists who would go on to promulgate the first Constitution in the world safeguarding sexual orientation as a human right - even though the gap between its promises and lived South African experiences is still vast for many citizens. In 2006, the National Assembly passed a bill recognising same-sex marriage. This came to pass because the ANC's parliamentary caucus was issued a three-line whip, instructing ANC MPs to vote in favour of the bill.

"In breaking with our past… we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia," erstwhile Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the National Assembly before the vote.

The Democratic Alliance, in contrast, allowed its MPs a vote of conscience on the matter. If all political parties in the National Assembly had done similarly, it's extremely doubtful whether the bill would have passed. Fortunately, ANC leadership chose to give primacy to the principle of full rights for all above individual MPs' objections.

The DA's stance on gay rights has been in the news again recently with the election of Mmusi Maimane as its new leader. Over the past week, Maimane has been scrambling to regain footing after seeming to say - in his televised debate with opponent Wilmot James - that he would accept a public referendum on gay marriage, though he has since backed down on this.

At the same time, a video has been circulating showing Maimane preaching at his Liberty Church in Johannesburg last year.

In it, Maimane says: "Part of the mission I believe God has given us is to be a friend of sinners. Because, you know what, I am a sinner. So I guess we can be friends, right? But I don't want to just be their friend 'cause I want them to think, I'm like, they are like a project. I want them to sincerely know I'm their friend. So, you know what I am most grateful of, is that in my friendship circles there are Muslims, there are gay people, because I believe that is what God has called us to do. I take the verse that Jesus says, 'I didn't come for the well but I came for the sick'. I take that quite seriously."

During the #AskMmusi Q&A held on Twitter on Wednesday, Maimane was asked for his personal opinion on homosexuality. He replied: "I support the rights of gay people as espoused in the Constitution." It's a canny response, because it's not an answer to the exact question posed. Assuming Maimane's views have not drastically altered within the period of twelve months, his Liberty Church sermon tells us what his personal opinion is of homosexuality. He is "sincerely" friends with gays, because "that is what God has called us to do". It is a Christian duty to minister to the "sick".

As a gay person, do I find Maimane's views as expressed in the video offensive? Frankly: yes. (I imagine many Muslim people feel similarly.) But I find Maimane's initial dithering on the question of putting gay rights to a referendum far, far more concerning.

I accept that there are many South Africans whose religious or cultural beliefs will continue to dictate that they view homosexuality as an aberration and a sin. As long as they don't teach these views in government schools, or use them as a pretext to perform acts of violence or discrimination, the freedom of religious belief enshrined in our Constitution entitles them to hold those views, and there's nothing that people like me can do about it.

Ultimately, I don't particularly care whether the likes of Mompati or Maimane find gays abnormal or sinful - as long as those views continue not to find expression in our legal system or public policy. The struggle that Mompati fought brought us rights for gay people. Thank God for that.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.