EARLIER this month, South African celebrity Somizi Mhlongo was meant to travel to Zimbabwe for the reopening of a restaurant in Harare. That trip never happened. It’s not clear if the openly gay star was banned due to a government directive or if event organisers pulled out in fear of retribution or boycott.
Garwe restaurant is an upmarket establishment by Zimbabwe’s standards. It closed at some point. Its scheduled reopening was meant to be filled with pomp and ceremony. That was the plan at least.
And to meet its perceived status, it invited Somizi.
Then, a clique of religious leaders in the country claimed Somizi’s coming would cause “spiritual disturbances”. I am not kidding!
The leaders, even carbon-copied the views of traditional healers. Talk about awkward alliances.
The alliance soon had some muscle too — the all-powerful Zanu PF youth league.
They demanded an audience with the restaurant’s owners. Soon it was game over and Somizi was dropped.
What does the law say?
Sexual intercourse and/or sexual contact between persons of the same sex is criminalised in Zimbabwe. Section 73 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act reads as follows:
“73: Sodomy — (1) Any male person who, with the consent of another male person, knowingly performs with that other person anal sexual intercourse, or any act involving physical contact other than anal sexual intercourse that would be regarded by a reasonable person to be an indecent act, shall be guilty of sodomy and liable to a fine of up to or exceeding level 14 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or both.”
Section 14 of the Zimbabwe Immigration Act, a separate instrument, reads as follows:
“14: Prohibited persons: (1) Subject to this Act, the following persons are prohibited persons — any person who — (i) is a prostitute or homosexual…”
Zimbabwe’s Constitution, adopted in 2013 after massive public consultations, refused to acknowledge the rights of the LGBTIQA+ community. It simply reads, people of the same sex may not marry, and Zimbabweans freely express homophobic and transphobic views everywhere.
South Africa’s constitution, on the other hand, doesn’t allow any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Section 9 of the South African constitution reads as follows:
(3) The State may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth.
Zimbabwe has done something like this before?
Zimbabwe enjoys reciprocal visa-free travel with South Africa, and persons, unless deemed especially undesirable, cannot be barred from entering either country.
Zimbabwean authorities remain mum on the Somizi issue. It would be bizarre but unsurprising if it turned out that they supported the ban. I will explain why.
A few years ago, Zimbabwe temporarily banned Zodwa wa Bantu from the country. The late former President Robert Mugabe and his Cabinet were uncomfortable with Zodwa walking around Harare without panties.
You read that right, underwear was on the Cabinet agenda.
Zodwa was eventually allowed to travel to the country, but under a strict condition that she “wear underwear at all times”.
It would be funny if it was not tragic!
Senior politicians, faced with an ailing economy, a defunct currency and rampant poverty were more concerned about tourists going commando.
Years later, it seems, the actors have changed but the same madness continues.
“He is coming to cook, not to be gay”, my former colleague, and journalist Jacob Changamire, wrote on his Twitter account.
“That should not be too hard to understand”, I said to myself.
But then this is Zimbabwe. Strange things happen.
What has perhaps been quite peculiar is seeing my country, and its ballooned expatriate and refugee community with their chests out in support of Somizi’s cancellation.
Many Zimbabweans live in South Africa, people back home depend on remittances (cash or groceries) from South Africa, and Zimbabweans go as far as jumping the border just to enter the country.
All of this for a better life, supposedly. There is widespread acceptance that South Africa is a more democratic, open, and free society that presents opportunities for many.
Zimbabweans love to throw “principles” around.
Which is all well and good, until one realises how hypocritical it is.
If at all we were that loyal to bigoted principles, one would assume we would choose to suffer in our 18th century anachronistic world and not want even a piece of a country that allows homosexuality.
It is mind-blowing that if South Africa declared Zimbabwean citizens undesirable because they hold bigoted views, South Africa would be fried deep in xenophobia fat.
South Africa must act
The Zimbabwean government is yet to formally comment on the matter, however, staunch supporters of Zanu PF, which runs government have been clear that they believe Somizi would not have been allowed in, and they have two Acts of Parliament and a whole constitution backing their stance.
But that is where it gets tricky. If strict constitutional and legal terms applied, Zimbabweans who illegally fled to South Africa post 2005, often with no travel documents, should have never received special permits.
Most of them didn’t meet the minimum requirements for skilled migration.
South Africa’s approach to these issues has not been iron-fisted, but rather compassionate, because in life, the law in strict terms is simply unfair, unfeeling, and cruel, especially towards vulnerable minorities.
Despite all the talk about the law, South Africa must ask Zimbabwe for clarity.
Zimbabwe must answer if it is fact that members of the LGBTIQA+ community are unwanted in its country.
If so, perhaps South Africa should retaliate in good measure by banning Zimbabweans from entering South Africa, because after all, South Africa’s Constitution doesn’t allow any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. If “gays” must stay away from Zimbabwe, then bigots must also stay away from South Africa.