Outraged human rights activists have slammed former South African deputy president Jacob Zuma's condemnation of same-sex marriages.
Zuma, perceived as a leading contender for the country's presidency, reportedly described same-sex marriages as "a disgrace to the nation and to God" at a public meeting to celebrate Heritage Day in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, on South Africa's east coast, earlier this week.
His remarks were made while the South African parliament was conducting public hearings on the Civil Union Bill that would legalise same-sex marriages, in conformance with a Constitutional Court ruling of more than a year ago ordering parliament to change the law to allow homosexual couples the same status, benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual couples.
"When I was growing up, unqingili ['homosexuals' in the Zulu language] could not stand in front of me," Zuma was quoted as saying at the public meeting.
Donna Smith, of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) providing a support network for black lesbians, said Zuma's comments bordered on "hate speech ... I wonder how many African lesbians were raped between the time he had made that remark and today. We cannot support such a man for the country's presidency at a time when Africa is looking towards South Africa for leadership, and as a voice for the underprivileged and oppressed communities in the continent."
As gays and lesbians become increasingly visible in South Africa, which has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, they have become targets of homophobia, according to rights activists. Most South Africans are conservative, with ideas opposed to the constitution, which stipulates equal rights and opportunities for all, irrespective of sexual orientation.
Carrie Shelver, the public awareness manager of People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), a rights NGO, described Zuma's remarks as "absolutely appalling and odd, as he [Zuma] is a proud member" of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which passed a resolution in support of same-sex marriages in 1997.
"By playing to populist belief, and with views against gays and lesbians prevalent in a patriarchal society, Zuma's irresponsible comments could impact on the public hearings on the bill," she commented.
The ANC has distanced itself from Zuma's comments, which party spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said had been made in "his [Zuma's] personal capacity. We stand by our resolution in support of same-sex marriages and the bill".
Smith also slated Zuma's supporters in the ruling alliance - the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - for supporting "someone as backward ... We have always looked towards the two organisations [ANCYL and COSATU] as progressive members of the civil society, so we cannot understand their position [supporting Zuma]".
IRIN was unable to elicit a response to Zuma's remarks from either ANCYL or COSATU.
The former deputy president was also recently in the spotlight for his comments on HIV/AIDS and women while standing trial on rape charges.
His testimony at the rape trial earlier this year revealed some controversial attitudes, including that because the complainant - a 31-year-old HIV-positive family friend - had worn a skirt she had signalled her sexual availability, and the universally condemned idea that he had reduced his risk of HIV infection by taking a shower after sex.
ANC insiders said Zuma could be playing to the many dissenting voices on the proposed legislation within the party, including the chair of the parliamentary home affairs committee, which is deliberating the bill. A scornful chairman Patrick Chauke was quoted in the Business Day, a local daily newspaper, as commenting on the bill: "you won't find things like this anywhere else in Africa".
However, ANC members have been told to toe the line - should parliament fail to approve the bill, the Marriage Act of 1961 will automatically be changed to allow the partners of same-sex unions the required rights, in accordance with the Constitutional Court order.
The bill has given parliament's more conservative members, who regard it as "unchristian", some leeway, as state-employed marriage officers will have the option of turning down solemnisation of same-sex marriages if the official objects in writing on the grounds of conscience. Changes in the Marriage Act would have made it mandatory for marriage officers to legalise same-sex unions.
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has played an instrumental role in trying to reconcile the conservative members of the ruling elite to the idea of same-sex unions. In an open letter to parliament, SACC general secretary Eddie Makue said, "There is not a single 'Christian' perspective on marriage. We are alarmed by the widespread misapprehension that those who oppose equal marriage rights speak on behalf of a monolithic 'Christian Church'. Different denominations have different understandings of, and policies governing, marriage and divorce, and these have evolved over time."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions