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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Zuma’s Chief Justice Choice Stokes Fears of a Social Conservative Backlash – and a Lapdog Judiciary

The Guardian published my opinion piece on Mogoeng Mogoeng today:

South Africa is one of Africa’s most liberal outposts, while Kenya has a reputation for conservatism. But no society is static, least of all in Africa. And the recent appointment processes around new chief justices in these two regional powerhouses demonstrates just how important – and potentially vulnerable – the democratic rule of law is, in places that have long histories of human rights abuse, and where inevitable social change threatens age-old customs.

In May Willy Mutunga was nominated as Kenya’s first chief justice under its promising new constitution. Mutunga wears an earring and, as a Ford Foundation executive, funded gay organisations in the country. And yet, despite intense opposition from the churches he was confirmed in the post, in what was a watershed moment for Kenyan society. Mutunga was asked publicly if he was gay; he replied that he was not, but stated unequivocal support for the rights of those who were. Most Kenyans might not feel the same way. Still, Mutunga was clearly the best man for the job, given his independence, his integrity and his stance against state corruption.

Gordimer, Kentridge, Masekela, Van Wyk, Wicomb at the “Narratives, Nostalgia, Nationhoods” Conference at Wits

Dear Friends and Colleagues

I’m in Joburg this week to participate in the “Narratives, Nostalgia, Nationhoods” conference being run at Wits University by the Apartheid Archive.

On Thurs 28 July, at 6.30 pm, at Wits Great Hall, I’m convening a unique encounter among five of South Africa’s greatest writers and artists: Gordimer/Kentridge/Masekela/Van Wyk/Wicomb – “On Creativity and Memory: Nadine Gordimer, William Kentridge, Hugh Masekela, Chris van Wyk and Zoe Wicomb”. They will present some of their work, and and talk about the role of memory – or nostalgia- in their creative process, specifically within the context of South Africa. The event is free. If you would like to come, or would like more information about the conference in general, contact Nomonde Gogo at; 011-717-4524

Here is an extract from the press release:

To watch these five national treasures, across three media, on one platform, will be a unique and exhilirating experience,” says Gevisser. “I sometimes think we take our artistic talent in South Africa for granted. These extraordinary thinkers and artists have defined the way many people across the globe think not only about South Africa, but about memory and history, about oppression and liberation. This event at the Great Hall will not be entertaining and provocative, but will be a moment to celebrate the greatness of South Africa’s creative spirit and regenerative capacity.” Gevisser, whose last book was the award-winning Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, is Writing Fellow at University of Pretoria and a Carnegie Fellow at Wits University. The Great Hall event, he says, “could not be more timely. Some people are nostalgic for the apartheid era or for the years of struggle, some people are nostalgic for the ‘Madiba Moment’, and increasingly, people are declaring their nostalgia for the Mbeki era. Perhaps this is to be expected in a country that faces such challenges in the present.” Gevisser notes that, in a country with South Africa’s history, “even talking about nostalgia is very controversial.” With his guests, he expects an event that will “entertain, provoke and challenge the way we think about the past, by looking at our finest artists and writers mine memory for their creative work.” Each participant will present some of their own work, before Gevisser leads a discussion among them.

Another event at the conference that promises to be fascinating is a panel discussion on Philip Miller’s “Rewind Cantata”, at the Wits Downstairs Theatre at 5.30 pm on Wednesday, 27th July 2011. A video projection of excerpts of the multimedia production, Rewind Cantata, created by Gerhard Marx, will pd serve as the point of departure for the panel discussion. Nomfundo Walaza will facilitate conversations with Sibongile Khumalo, Gerhard Marx, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and Nomonde Calata. The aim of the discussion is to explore questions regarding the possibilities and limits of a work of art in engaging with complex moments of history and individual testimony, as reflected in Rewind Cantata. As seating is limited, you need to confirm your attendance to

Finally, I am giving a keynote address at the conference on Wednesday morning, on “A Street-Guide Named Desire: Johannesburg Maps, Memory and Nostalgia”, at the Emothonjeni Centre at Wits University. Talking in the same session are Jacob Dlamini on “Embittered histories: Betrayal and South Africa’s freedom struggle”, Gabeba Baderoon on “Primal scenes: Dissident memories, forbidden words, and the uses of utopia in South Africa”, and Zoe Wicomb on “Good reliable fictions: Nostalgia and narrative discourse.” For more information:

Hugh Masekela To Talk About Nostalgia in Post-Apartheid South Africa at Wits University

“There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe …”

If you have ever watched Hugh Masekela perform his anthem Stimela, you could not but have been profoundly affected by the force of its emotion as he sings and blows and shunts his tale of migrant labourers coming to Johannesburg on the coal train (steam train) to dig “deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth”.

Why does the song provoke such an intense response? At one level, it is because of the empathy it establishes with the people on whose backs our country’s wealth is built. And yet how to explain the passion, the sheer longing, evident at any performance of the song: the gathering cheer that builds through the crowd as they hear Masekela’s whoo-whoo and realise the train is about to arrive?

The thrill, of course, is connected to Masekela’s virtuosity and vitality. But the longing comes from somewhere else. A train, particularly a steam train, conjures up the past; in the way it crosses space and time, it represents the working of memory. And this act of remembering is at the heart of the experience of performing – and listening to – Stimela.

We love great songs because they trigger memories of the previous times we heard them. In the case of Stimela, it might take us back to a simpler time, when there was evil and it could be fought with struggle and song.

Masekela wrote the song when he was in exile, and it expresses his own longing for home. He also succeeds in evoking not just the pain, but also the longing of the subjects of his song, the labourers who “always curse, curse the coal train, the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg”.

Although it might seem paradoxical, there is an element of nostalgia in the rhythmic “curse, curse” of the migrant labourers for the train. This is a nostalgia we experience as listeners too, for a journey we all know in one way or another: one that takes one from the countryside to the city, from the past to the present, from youth to old age.

The South African women living in fear of rape

On Good Friday 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza was raped, stoned and stabbed to death in the township of KwaThema, east of Johannesburg. Two years previously another young KwaThema woman, Eudy Simelane, was raped and murdered.

Rape statistics are notoriously unreliable, but there is consensus that the rate of violence against women in South Africa is extremely high. The country also has the twelfth highest homicide rate in the world. Yet the cases of Nogwaza and Simelane stood out because they were butch lesbians who appear to have been victims of homophobic hate-crime. Their murders have been ascribed to an epidemic of “corrective rape” aimed at turning lesbians straight, or at teaching them a lesson for rejecting men. What makes this all the more shocking is that South Africa is officially one of the most tolerant countries in the world: its constitution explicitly outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage is legal.

In truth the fatal violence against lesbians like Nogwaza and Simelane is an extreme illustration of a truth about all rape: it is always “corrective”. Rapists typically think they are teaching their victims a lesson, either for wanting it too much or for not wanting it enough. This has a particular resonance in South Africa, whereresearch suggests that a high number of sexually active teenage girls say their first sexual encounter was coercive. Dipika Nath is conducting research into violence against lesbians in South Africa for Human Rights Watch: “In a context where women are not allowed to say ‘no’ to sex,” she says, “butch lesbians and transgender men can be seen as presenting the ultimate defiance – by their very identity.”

One of the wonders of contemporary South Africa is the flowering of an urban black working-class lesbian subculture. Raised with a post-apartheid consciousness of human rights, many young black women have rejected the traditional roles expected of them: they have claimed the right to live independent of men and taken their sexuality on to the streets with a particular subcultural look. This is part of a broader trend in sub-Saharan Africa. Sexuality has become a matter of identity (“I am lesbian”) in the region, rather than mere practice (“I sleep with women”); an overt insistence on equality, rather than a covert satisfying of desire, accommodated by social norms and traditions. The result, inevitably, is social upheaval.

In countries such as Malawi and Uganda, the state and the church have promoted this upheaval with official homophobia. In South Africa things are different for two reasons: the social liberalism of the African National Congress, and the role that the established church has played – led by Bishop Desmond Tutu – in arguing for tolerance. Nonetheless, in a country with severe inequality, violent homophobia (like violent misogyny) has become an outlet for some members of a new “lost generation”, unemployable youths caught in a cycle of poverty, emasculation and criminality.

Being Black and Gay in Soweto, During Apartheid and After

Granta 114This piece, published today in the Mail & Guardian, is taken from an article in the current issue of Granta magazine, no. 114, “Aliens”. Please see below for a special subscription offer for Granta.

Edgar had two wedding rings, he told me. He wore one on his left hand and the other round his neck.

The first was a solid gold signet, conjuring the respectability of a Soweto patriarch: his marriage of over 50 years; his decent clerical job; his home shared with his wife and 15 of his progeny — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The second was a lush red silk tie, given to him by a male lover, since deceased. His family might have seen it as another item in his snappy wardrobe, but he wore it with purpose, to commemorate the man: “He worked for Liberty Life and he treated me so well. He was amazing! We would go places. It’s still there, the tie. It’s red, beautiful. I love that tie!”

Their wedding bands were the first things I noticed when I met Edgar and his friend Phil in 1998, at a Soweto tavern named Scotch’s Place. Both rings were assertive and masculine, planed rather than curved, and spoke of the substance and solidity of their wearers. Phil, like Edgar, was a married grandfather; he owned a home in a middle-class part of Soweto and drove a car; he was approaching retirement from his own clerical job at a commercial company in town.

These were the days when a wedding ring still meant you were straight, or in the closet. And so Edgar and Phil’s fingers flashed a particular code as the men sat in the semi-obscurity of Scotch’s interior, having chosen a table that put them in the direct flight path between the door to the yard and the bar. As patrons streamed in and out, Phil or Edgar would mutter something sotto voce, and a young man or two would linger for a moment, engage in conversation, and maybe sit down. By the time I left three hours later, chairs had been pulled up all around them and tables pulled together.

All these young men had impossibly waspy waists, with button-down shirts neatly tucked into the smartly pressed jeans, or tank tops riding well above the navel: amaphophodlwana, Edgar and Phil called them, using isingqumngqum, the township gay slang, derived from Zulu migrant labourers; “small boys”.

“Look at them,” Phil said, with desire and disapproval. “We were not as free as they are today. Today they are very free. Very showy. You can see them miles away. I won’t go around with a boy in a skinny top and a belly button outside, no. No, no, no, no.”

All the names in this piece are pseudonyms, and certain details have been changed to protect Phil and Edgar’s confidentiality. Some of the material used here is from interviews conducted by Zethu Mathebeni and Paul Mokgethi for Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. For a special subscription offer to Granta for Mail & Guardian readers, the quarterly magazine of new writing, visit

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“We did it, we showed the world”

My piece on the 2010 World Cup for the Mail & Guardian:

Sunday’s final crowned a World Cup that has united a nation. But if South Africa can deliver a global mega-event, why can’t it tackle its inequality with the same energy and efficiency?

Sixteen years after experiencing the unforgettable rush of belonging and relief at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, I felt it again last month: at the Free State stadium in Bloemfontein, watching the South African national team play their last World Cup game on 22 June. We beat France 2-1, and although the victory was insufficient to qualify us into the next round, the consensus across the country following the game was that “we won!”

Why? First, because the Bafana Bafana played at last with optimism, unity, and occasional brilliance; as good a recipe as any for a nascent national identity. Second, because we proved to a sceptical world — and thus ourselves — that we could host a World Cup, a hopeful corrective against the negativity that keeps tourists and investment away. Third, because if our government could deliver the world’s biggest mega-sporting event so efficiently, surely it could tackle South Africa’s social and economic ills with similar resolve. But “we won” most of all, because we could finally say “we”.

Just a few weeks previously, the Afrikaner right-wing leader Eugène Terre’Blanche had been killed by a black employee, and the world was predicting civil war. The African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema, had defied his party by refusing to stop singing an old liberation song, Kill the Boer, and by calling for the dispossession of white farms. The racial temperature had never been higher.

But something shifted during the World Cup: with a team to support and half a million guests to take care of, we found ourselves all on the same side. The festive buzz of a million vuvuzelas came to override the habitual sounds of urban anxiety: the gunfire; the helicopters chasing stolen cars; the aggressive minibus taxis. Sure, it was holiday-time: daily matches, skiving from work, the cities aglitter with flags and foreigners. Still, for the first time in South Africa’s history, it seemed, patriotism was not a political statement. South Africans were waving flags, and supporting their team out of a sense of joy and belonging, rather than the deficit-driven pride that has fuelled both Afrikaner and African nationalism for so long.

At the beginning of the South Africa-France match, I had found myself — to my astonishment — singing the South African national anthem. In the spirit of the reconciliatory Mandela era, the anthem is an amalgam of the liberation hymn, Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika and the apartheid-era Die Stem. I have not been able to bring myself to sing the latter, but as I watched the Afrikaners around me trying to twist their mouths around Nkosi Sikelel and black South Africans in turn belting out Die Stem with unfettered delight, my stand seemed ridiculously churlish, and so I joined in, exalting along with everyone else those Boer ox-wagons as they conquered the interior.

I was with a group of friends. To our left sat a stolid middle-aged black couple in the Mad Hatter attire that has become part of the South African football fan’s kit. In front was a large Indian family which had managed to smuggle samosas past the Fifa branding police; the granny blew her vuvuzela with sincere devotion, and became involved in an hilarious call-and-response with the white teenagers sitting next to her.

Behind us were three younger black men who really knew their football and were enraged at opportunities the Bafana Bafana missed. “Don’t worry, man,” the older Afrikaner next to them responded at the final whistle, “We did it. We showed the world!” And then he unleashed the war cry which reminded us that we were actually in one of South Africa’s most hallowed rugby stadiums, deep in the Afrikaner heartland: “Vrystaaaaaat [Free State]!”

National picnic

We all laughed as we shuffled our way out in a sea of exhilarated yellow. It wasn’t a war, or even a giant self-conscious love-in. It was just a big, happy, national picnic.

After the Bafana were knocked out, it did not take long for South Africans transfer their allegiances to Ghana, the one remaining African team in the competition: “We are all Black Stars now!” trumpeted one Johannesburg newspaper, aptly capturing the national sentiment. A friend who went to the Ghana-US game in Rustenburg reports that every local in this conservative place — white and black alike — was flying the Black Star, and that the Afrikaners in the stadium were cheering for the West Africans as lustily as they would the Springboks.

You would not, of course, have had to look too hard to find some white schadenfreude at the Africans’ failure, in general, at the tournament. The South African journalist Johannes Dieterich told me how he had spent a Saturday night in the Karoo town of De Aar in Northern Cape: “The blacks hung out at the tavern Las Vegas At Night and watched soccer passionately, while the coloureds were in the Platform disco and whites at Pringles. There, the game was on several screens, but nobody was watching. One guy told me, ‘Bafana Bafana should learn from the Springboks how to play, then maybe I will watch them.’”

And just as there were, of course, several muggings, there was the inevitable racial slurring too. A friend heard a white fan, at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld stadium, insult an official repeatedly with the word “kaffir” when he was prevented from bringing his own beer into the stadium.

On the joys and burdens of bearing a national identity

For a few brief hours, on a trip home to Jo’burg recently, I flew the flag. I wanted to see what it would feel like to assert publicly my national identity, rather than simply to feel it, or be it, but it didn’t work. After a few self-conscious missions across the northern suburbs, I demobbed: much as the general flutter filled me with joy, mounting a flag myself made me feel too, well, American.

Mandla, the security man who looks after us on our street in Melville, is trying to feel German. One of the many soutpiele to emerge during the World Cup, he is flying both South African and German colours off his Tazz. He knows that Bafana Bafana are going to be knocked out early and he wants to have someone to support after this happens. When I asked him why he did not wait until the home team were out before turning coat, he explained: “I can’t support a team unless I feel it in my heart and, if I want to feel it in my heart, I have to support them from the beginning.”

What is it about the relationship between flying a flag and feeling it in your heart? My colleague Pippa Green says that when she looks at all the South African flags on cars driven by whites in Pretoria, she realises that “for the first time since 1994, flying the flag is not a political statement. It’s just a statement of belonging. People are flying flags just because they’re happy and possibly even proud.”

Of course, there is as little chance of economic benefit to South Africa from the World Cup as there is of Bafana Bafana winning the tournament. Perhaps, then, that’s how we have to understand the state’s exorbitant expenditure on the games: as an investment in national identity. To make sense of this, it is instructive to look back at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

No one who lived through those earlier times actually believes that Nelson Mandela prevented civil war in South Africa by supporting the Bokke and enabling them to win; rather, he created a pageant which enabled South Africans to celebrate, publicly, an already-existing fact; the war was over and we had survived.

Similarly, this year’s World Cup will not change anything material for most of us. Still, in the way that grand national pageants can, it might change the way South Africans see themselves and describe themselves. Much like Rugby 1995, Football 2010 could become a nostalgic buttress to hold things together when things get tough. It will become the moment we tell our children about; the moment we affirmed publicly that, just one generation after the fall of apartheid, a national identity existed in this deeply divided land and that exuberance and openness were core parts of this identity.

One of the loveliest effects of the current flutter is, in fact, the soutpiel factor; that it’s cool if you want to be South African and English, or South African and Ghanaian. Perhaps this is evidence of a surge of national confidence, a counter to the defensive nationalism that flag-waving is so often about.

Still, I worry about the relationship of World Cup success to national pride: How will we feel if we lose? Not at Soccer City, but on the pitch of global opinion and thus of self-regard. South Africa has an unhealthy obsession with reputation, manifested by a tendency towards bling: if we look good, we are good. A decade ago this led the government down the poisoned well of the arms deal; now, it has led us into a herd of exquisite white elephants, each one more beautiful than the last, which threaten to sap the fiscus in the years to come.

We remain victims of Mandela-exceptionalism: we were once the Rainbow Nation, the “World’s Greatest Fairy Tale”, and we need to be so again. Particularly in the face of so much negative press — the crime, the corruption, the Aids-crankery, a stampede in Thembisa — we need the world to love us again, sometimes it seems, before we can love ourselves. And so if we are found lacking in some way or other (the crime, the corruption, a stampede in Thembisa …) we run the risk of resorting to precisely the kind of hurt, angry defensiveness that is all too often the trigger for flag-waving and an easy route to xenophobia. Blame the Nigerians.

There is always a tension between the way national identity is manufactured by the state and the way it is felt and lived — customised — by the people. If, indeed, the World Cup was the state’s massive investment in the making of national identity, then it was also an investment, by the ruling party, in its own wellbeing and thus longevity. There is terrible poignancy in the fact that the state could never earn as much good feeling per rand spent, say, on housing, as it will out of the money spent on the World Cup stadiums.

Franz Fanon wrote brilliantly about this impulse in independent Africa, warning that one of the “pitfalls of national consciousness” is that, “instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, it will be … only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what might have been.”

Fanon saw the neocolonial phenomenon of the national stadium as one of the primary examples of this and, visiting Soccer City a few weeks before the World Cup was to open, I could not help but hear his words reverberate around the magnificent place, even as I was awestruck — and even “proud” of it — myself.

Homosexuality and the Battle for Africa

‘These boys committed a crime against our culture, our religion and our laws,” said the Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika at the weekend as he pardoned Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga from their sentence of 14 years hard labour. He claimed he was exercising the pardon “on humanitarian grounds”. If he were more truthful, he would have said it was on diplomatic, or expedient grounds; his country is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, and the pressure on him was intense.

Meanwhile, Monjeza and Chimbalanga will no longer see each other now that they are free, according to reports. How could any young couple bear the pressure and run the risk of recidivism and rearrest? Both have been “returned” to their home communities and their families, it seems, will take up the role of punishing them where the state left off. Two lives, at least, have been ruined, and as the terrible episode draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on why there appears to be a wave of state-sanctioned homophobia across the continent at the moment, and what those of us — African or not — committed to human rights might do about it.

The recent pressure on Malawi is reminiscent of that on Uganda last year. As a consequence, the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, intervened to prevent the inclusion in anti-homosexuality laws of a clause mandating the death penalty in certain instances. On a smaller scale, something similar happened in Rwanda: gay activists caught wind of a proposal to criminalise homosexuality and mounted a rapid-fire global campaign, largely via the internet, forcing Paul Kagame’s government to announce that it had no intention of intervening in the private lives of its citizens.

Such actions are in the best tradition of international solidarity; the kind of global action that played its part in bringing down apartheid. But given the politics of aid in Africa, it has consequences. Both Museveni and Kagame find themselves accused of being stooges to their donors; in Rwanda the country’s evangelical churches are seeking constitutional relief and one influential pastor is reported as saying, recently, “leta yafashwe kungufu” — Kinyarewanda for “the state was raped by the donor community”.

Recently the Palestinian academic Joseph Massad wrote a controversial book accusing gay funders and activists of becoming a proseletysing neocolonial “Gay International”, and of provoking unneccesary cultural conflict in the Arab world by imposing their Western “orientalist” definitions of gay identity on societies they deeply misunderstood. Such provocations, he wrote, land up making things worse, rather than better, for the people they are trying to assist, because of the backlash they provoke. Do Massad’s arguments hold any water in sub-Saharan Africa? Would homosexuals in Malawi or Uganda be any better off if the “Gay International” (perhaps best personified in the person of Peter Tatchell) had not been activated?

Homosexuality is — as has often been noted — illegal in 38 of Africa’s 53 sovereign states. In most instances, however, this is merely a hangover from the colonial British penal code, which criminalised sodomy for the first time in Africa, and is usually ignored. Homosexuality is certainly not a Western import, but both legislated homophobia and gay identity are. Particularly for younger urban people, sexuality has become a matter of identity (“I am gay”) rather than mere practice (“I sleep with men”); an overt insistence on equality rather than a covert satisfying of desire, accommodated by social norms and traditions.

The result has been social crisis. Before the Malawi case, there was organised mob violence against gay men and Aids workers in Kenya, and a protracted crackdown against homosexuals in Senegal; when gay men fled to Gambia last year, the president told them to leave or face decapitation. Recently, in Zimbabwe — where the state has been viciously homophobic for more than a decade — two gay activists were arrested and detained for criticising the anti-gay policies of Robert Mugabe, and in several other countries new anti-gay legislation is in the offing.

Africa, of course, is neither homo genous nor unique. Much of what is being faced by gay Africans today has been experienced in other parts of the world, including the West. Nonetheless, there is something undeniably specific about the loathing that has been activated on the continent at present, as couples such as Monjeza and Chimbalanga challenge age-old gender roles in societies struggling to maintain their integrity and to define their places in a globalised world.

There is a very particular dynamic to the current wave of homophobia; one which has its roots in American-sponsored Christian fundamentalism, the current politics of aid, and the Aids epidemic. The digital revolution plays its part too; thanks to satellite TV, middle-class Africans can channel-switch effortlessly between Will and Grace and Wahaabi tirades against the decadent homosexual West. Local tabloid newspapers sniff out marriage ceremonies to be performed by young men who have learned of such possibilities through their own exposure to the global media — even though there is no evidence that the Malawian couple, poor and marginalised, were in any way acting beyond their own impulses. Indeed, it is not even correct to call them a “gay” couple: Chimbalanga self-identifies as female.

Nonetheless, because Malawian society does not accept Chimbalanga as female, their engagement ceremony was read as the equivalent of a “gay marriage” — something which many Africans now know of due to global exposure — and the arrests of the two were provoked by sensationalist reporting. The Nation, the Malawian newspaper that caught wind of the story and broke it, put it bluntly: this was “the first recorded public activity for homosexuals in the country”. The anti-gay legislation had never been used in Malawi, but readers were now reminded that the practice of homosexuality carried a sentence of up to 14 years, and the police felt compelled to act.

The Kenyan violence began similarly: a gay Kenyan couple was legally married in London; a Kenyan newspaper reported on it, which triggered a spate of homophobic coverage in the country’s mass media, which made local radio stations in Mombasa eager to report on the rumour of a gay wedding. That, in turn, led to anti-gay vigilantism, brutal violence and the arrest of six allegedly gay men earlier this year.

Meanwhile, as Islam blooms in both East and West Africa, Christian clerics use homophobia as a weapon in the battle for souls, while American conservative Christians in the West have found in Africa the numbers needed to counter the liberalisation of their churches back home. This has been most evident, for example, in the way the Nigerian Anglican church has become a bulwark against the ordination of gay priests and the sanctification of same-sex marriages.

And so, while Western human rights organisations fund the development of gay organisations in countries such as Uganda, conservative American Christian organisations in these countries have been mobilising politicians in the same country to adopt extreme anti-gay legislation.

There is much irony, for example, in the way the pastor quoted above blames the donors for raping Rwanda, when his very theology has its roots in evangelical America, and when he and his co-religionists have been exposed to homophobia through the missionary activity of right-wing American churches. These churches and high-profile individuals have provided both the mobilisation and the theological underpinnings for state-sponsored homophobia.

The context to these “culture wars” is the Aids epidemic. Conservative American evangelicals gained a foothold in some African countries thanks to the policies of George W Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which prioritised “faith-based” HIV-programming, including the preaching of abstinence over the distribution of condoms. This gave American evangelicals an entrée into countries such as Uganda and empowered an entire generation of conservative Christian organisations in East Africa.

In contrast, the largely-liberal establishment aid agencies — particularly those from Northern Europe — strongly pushed an agenda of gay equality. This was not just for reasons of equality, but because of the growing evidence that one of the major vectors of HIV-transmission in African societies is “men who sleep with men” (MSMs): precisely those men who do not call themselves “gay” but who practise homosexual sex. To reach these men, state-funded programmes such as the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (Kemri) began focusing on MSMs. It is not coincidental that the victims of the anti-gay violence in Kenya were Aids workers, who provided services to homosexual clients at Kemri in Mombasa.

The Aids epidemic has only heightened many African countries’ dependence on the West and in this context there has been a new impetus to fight the “neocolonialism” of development aid: the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo argues in her bestselling Dead Aid, for example, that dependency on Western aid is killing African society, and that the plug must be pulled in five years. While many of the precepts of this approach might be correct, the reality is that the withdrawal of development aid from Africa at this point — particularly given the Aids epidemic — would be catastrophic.

And so, as many Africans become increasingly uncomfortable with their countries’ dependence on the West, they look to find a place to put their pride; they might be poor, but at least they have values! In all the world’s global indicators of well being, they can at least lead one: morality. What better way to maintain popular support than through the scapegoating of an unpopular minority in the name of a battle against Western decadence?

In the face of this — and of the brutality experienced by the Malawian couple, or the victims of violent homophobia elsewhere on the continent — what choice does the international community have but to exert the kind of pressure it has in countries like Rwanda and Uganda? Such pressure, however, perpetuates the very sense of powerlessness that provokes homophobia in the first place, and confirms the canard that support for gays is a “Western agenda”. It alone is clearly not a viable long-term solution.

Perhaps the experience of South Africa provides a way out of to this vicious cycle. Here, despite the horrific phenomenon of “corrective rape” against black lesbians in townships, the ruling ANC has championed sexual equality and legalised same-sex marriage; even the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, a man with a history of homophobic statements, felt compelled to condemn the Malawian sentence last week.

South Africa’s World Cup Moment

In the visitors’ Center at Cape Town’s new Green Point Stadium there is a quote by former president Thabo Mbeki: “The World Cup will be remembered as a moment when Africa stood tall and resolutely turned the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes the tournament to be “as important as Obama getting into the White House” for black people; Nelson Mandela has personally selected (we are told) and participated in the recording of a song for the opening ceremony.

The redemptive expectations are huge — as is the optimism, since the Bafana Bafana, the South African team, beat Denmark in a friendly match over the weekend.

A generation ago Mandela’s support enabled the South African Springboks to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, and in the process, the myth goes, won white South Africans over to his side. If the Rugby World Cup offered political redemption, then, this month’s soccer World Cup has been peddled as some form of economic redemption.

But there is, in truth, as little possibility of economic benefit for the host nation as there is of victory for the home team.

Certainly, the World Cup gave the country a hedge against the global recession, and has produced a temporary growth spurt. It has prompted a very necessary upgrading of transport infrastructure, and has demonstrated that South Africa has formidable technical capacity.

But what was originally going to cost the South African taxpayer a few million euros now stands to cost anywhere between €3 and €5 billion. The country’s short-term returns on its investment will be minimal, and it could well be left with a herd of white elephant stadiums that will sap the economy for decades to come. The last three hosts of the World Cup — Germany, Japan and South Korea — could afford such risk. But can South Africa?

The town of Nelspruit, capital of a corrupt and desperately poor province, now has a stadium that cost €137 million and that will host four unmemorable first-round matches before beginning the inexorable process of tropical rot.

If Cape Town had upgraded an existing stadium rather than built a new one, it would have forfeited the ability to host one of the semifinals, but the state could have used money saved to house a quarter of a million people.

In Johannesburg, the cost escalation for the construction of the “African Calabash” to $350 million has meant a radical cutback in capital expenditure in a city that is falling apart.

Why did the South Africa fight so hard, and spend so much, to host this tournament?

The South African government believes the benefit is intangible, and immeasurable — a “Mandela moment” all over again; a jab in the eye of Afro-pessimism; invaluable global coverage; the cementing of national pride and identity.

The country is aglitter with flags, aglow with good feeling. The world is talking about South Africa, and South Africans themselves are using the tournament to imagine the country of their dreams. Can you put a price on that?

“No,” says a senior government official who was part of the process. “We could never have bought this market exposure.” Still, she admits, “it’s a huge risk. If we get it wrong, it could do serious damage to our reputation. When the world’s cameras are trained on you, sure they pick up the feel-good stories in this wonderful country, but they also look for trouble — which is not difficult to find in South Africa.”

South Africa has an obsession with reputation, manifested by a tendency toward bling: If we look good, we are good. A decade ago, this led the government into an arms procurement deal that cost the state $3 billion. It commissioned unnecessary jet fighters and submarines, which Mbeki defended by saying that South African needed to show the world that it was a global player.

Remembering Frederik van Zyl Slabbert

I first met Frederik van Zyl Slabbert in 1977 when I was 12, on a holiday our two families took together. My father, David Gevisser, had been one of the campaign managers to engineer the “Prog” victory that put Slabbert and five others into Parliament next to Helen Suzman, and had become an ardent supporter of his political aspirations.

Like my father, and like almost everyone else who would meet “Van” during his extraordinary life, I was immediately smitten. I had never met anyone like him: he seemed both glamorous and earthy, both intense and irreverent, both easily approachable and fiercely intellectual. He solicited my opinions on something political, possibly the Soweto Uprising; I remember my conversations with him and his wife, Mana, on that holiday as being the first seriously “adult” ones I ever had. I remember thinking, on the drive home, that I would go to the trenches for him (some trenches: door-to-door canvassing in a Bryanston by-election) and that I wanted to be like him when I grew up: passionate, principled, engaged.

When he became the leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) two years later, I put a poster of him up in my room. I abandoned the “Progs” when I found the student left at university; three years later, when Slabbert stormed out of the “grotesque ritual of irrelevance” that was the white Parliament, I cheered. And as I watched him lead those vital encounters between white South Africans and ANC leaders, I felt a deep relief. His relationship with Thabo Mbeki in particular seemed to hold, in its affection and creativity, an answer to South Africa’s problems. I thought then — somewhat naively — that Slabbert would be South Africa’s transitional leader and that this would save us from civil war.

One of Slabbert’s great antagonists at the time was newspaper editor Ken Owen, who wrote recently that by quitting, the former PFP leader gave up the chance to become one of the architects of the South African Constitution. The historian Hermann Giliomee agrees: “There was a golden opportunity for an Afrikaner politician, unsullied by apartheid, to join FW de Klerk in trying to find a way out.”

But Slabbert had already accepted that there was only one possible way out: straightforward majority rule. As Jurgen Kogl puts it: “He rejected out of hand that he was the last white hope. ‘The last white hope to do what?’ he would ask. ‘To preserve white power by modernising apartheid? To fight for the qualified franchise?’ If that was to be his role, he wanted no part of it.”