5 min

South Africa welcomes gay tourists while homophobic violence persists

Country remains one of 'most highly unequal societies in the world'

On Jul 7, 2009 in Meadowlands, Soweto in South Africa members of the 07/07/07 Campaign against homophobic violence planted a tree dedicated to the memories of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa, two lesbians murdered two years earlier on that date. Credit: Adrian Coman/IGLHRC

Travel companies inviting gay and lesbian travellers to “paint the town pink” and claiming that South Africa has some of the most enlightened human rights policies in the world aren’t technically wrong — but the push to attract gays from abroad stands in sharp contrast to the violence suffered by homos in that country. In reality South Africa is divided into two different worlds, separated by ethnicity, money and geography, with one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world. 

“At an official level… South Africa was the first country to enshrine gay rights in the country’s constitution and they have had same-sex marriage there since 2006 so, yes, the argument could be made that they are more enlightened than most,” says Pat Barry of Toronto-based gay travel company “However, especially outside of the cities, there is still not great acceptance of gays and lesbians and indeed it can be dangerous in the townships — but from a tourism perspective very few tourists would go there.”

“South Africa remains one of the most highly unequal societies in the world…. Written laws effectively remain on the shelves,” writes Monica Mbaru, coordinator of the Africa Program at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), via email. “There is very little community awareness or empowerment. The marketing of South Africa as a tourist destination has seen huge resources being directed to a few urban centres, such as Cape Town or Durban. But this merely camouflages the high poverty rate in South Africa.”

“Gay tourism is very big business [in South Africa] with tons of local gay operators, accommodation venues, restaurants, clubs and bars in the affluent and commercial areas,” says South-African born Tracey Sandilands, executive director of Pride Toronto and former board member for South African Pride fests Cape Town Pride and Joburg Pride. “It is in the rural and poor areas where there is still some homo prejudice.”

While gay tourists can expect a reasonable level of safety in popular tourist areas such as the Western Cape, black lesbian South Africans are routinely the target of “corrective” rapes and violence, particularly in rural areas.

“When you talk about black lesbian women, there are multiple levels of oppression…. They live in poor, mainly black communities where there are levels of poverty and where sex and rape become ways to ‘proof’ masculinities,” says Dawie Nel, director of South African gay rights group Out.

One of the most prominent examples involves Eudy Simelane, a soccer player with South Africa’s national women’s team. The 31-year-old was found murdered in a field in KwaThema township outside Johannesburg in April 2008. She had been gang-raped before being stabbed to death.

“We are deeply concerned that this is the latest in an increasing trend of violence aimed at black lesbian women and growing prejudice and discrimination being experienced by people on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” wrote the Joint Working Group, an umbrella group for various queer organizations in South Africa, in a statement at the time of Simelane’s murder.

Last month one man was convicted in her murder; at the same time the judge acquitted two other men, citing insufficient evidence. Another man had already been convicted in February; although he implicated the other three he declined to testify against them.

“Despite yesterday’s conviction there is immense tragedy in this moment,” stated IGLHRC’s executive director Cary Johnson in a press release issued the day after the Sep 22 conviction. “The killer showed no remorse, the police are indifferent, the courts provide no redress for lesbian victims. How can South Africa end epidemic levels of violence without effectively prosecuting crimes against its LGBT citizens?”

Although Simelane’s case drew international attention because of her high profile as a pro athlete, she is far from being the only black lesbian targeted. Others include Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Moosa, who were raped, bound and shot on Jul 7, 2007 in Soweto — their deaths sparked the 07/07/07 campaign against homophobic violence — and Zoliswa Nkonyane who was stoned to death in February 2006 in Cape Town.

“Instances of violence against black lesbians are definitely on the rise,” writes Mbaru. “There are high levels of ‘corrective rape’ targeting black lesbians who, because of poverty, are driven to live in dangerous areas where they cannot afford security measures. Lesbians who are visibly out or who are activists are especially targeted.”

Nor have South African gay men escaped violence. The notorious Sizzler’s’ Massacre of 2003, in which nine men were tortured and murdered at a Cape Town gay massage parlour, is still fresh in the minds of many gay men. Quinton Taylor, who worked at Sizzler’s, was bound, slashed across the throat and shot twice in the head. He lived to be a key witness at the trial of two men, who were found guilty of nine counts of murder.

Speculation continues about the significance of the Sizzlers’ Massacre — was it a homophobic attack or a robbery gone wrong? Had all the culprits been apprehended? That Taylor was kept in a witness protection program even after the two men convicted began serving prison time has fuelled speculation that there were other suspects at large.

“[It’s] so strange to me that it’s not known abroad,” writes gay Cape Town resident PB Thomas. “Hell, I mean it’s a massacre in an international hot spot.”


How is it that South Africa can simultaneously have such progressive legislation and such a horrific level of persecution against some of its queer citizens?

“In spite of its constitution South Africa is a very heteronormative and patriarchal society,” says Nel.

“Although apartheid has been addressed in law and policy, in society social, economic and cultural barriers remain,” says Mbaru. “Poverty among black South Africans is still high, and the majority cannot afford a decent life, or adequate housing or education. These hardships have been compounded by escalating violence in the townships and also by xenophobia, witnessed in recent attacks where black South Africans attacked black Africans from other countries.”

“The reality is that although the rights are entrenched, many cases don’t make it as far as the courts in which justice might be obtained,” says Sandilands. “This happens for a number of reasons, including the fact that so many individuals throughout the police forces and medical personnel are homophobic, and this ensures that queer people do not get treated according to the law. While the law is very clear about the LGBTQ rights, implementation is less than perfect.”

Despite the disparity Barry says South Africa remains an attractive option for gay tourists looking for certain kinds of travel.

“If they want a gay safari experience it can’t be beat,” he says. “People can spend sometime enjoying the gay scene of Cape Town and then can go on a safari operated by a gay-owned and operated safari company. There aren’t many places you can do that.”

Barry cites the reflections of a mixed-race gay couple who have recently returned from a trip to Cape Town: “They said Cape Town was very gay-friendly and stunningly beautiful…. Their impression was that for tourists being gay was fine and they were very much aware that women have been killed for being lesbian in the townships and suspected it would be very difficult for gay boys growing up in the townships or slums.

“As is the case in many places in the world for those who had enough money they could move out of the townships into nicer areas of South Africa where it did not matter that you were gay. Their impression was the same was likely not true for those who did not have the resources to get out of the slums.”

So what can gay North Americans — prospective tourists to South Africa — do to help queers in that country?

“I’m not sure there’s anything tourists can really do to help, except perhaps become involved in queer activities such as the local Prides which help to raise awareness of queer issues,” writes Sandilands via email. “However they should ensure that they will be safe and follow the direction of local people when it comes to no-go areas and places that could be dangerous to them as tourists, queer or otherwise.”

“North Americans can highlight these disparities,” writes Mbaru, “and call for concerted efforts from the South African government, lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to ensure and guarantee the security and safety of everybody in South Africa, particularly those being violated because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.”