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Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT) Workshop, held at the offices of the Foundation for Human Rights, Braamfontein, 17 May 2018

Programme Director,
Representatives from the European Union
Representatives from FHR and civil society bodies
Representatives from the South African Human Rights Commission
Ladies and gentlemen,
Distinguished guests, friends

Homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are by no means a new phenomenon in our country. 

As Gabriel Hoosain Khan wrote in the Mail and Guardian:

“Love blossoms in unlikely places. It blossomed in 1735 on Robben Island, between Class Blank, a Khoi cattle herder, and Rijkaarts Jacobs, a sailor from Amsterdam. Two men imprisoned on Robben Island find love and are punished for it. The Dutch colonial court sentences Claas and Rijkaarts to death – by drowning in Tafel Bay.”

Thankfully, times have changed.

Laws too have changed.

And societal attitudes change too, although not always as fast as we would like them to.

We have made some progress in changing societal attitudes towards LBGTI persons in our country.

As the FHR has mentioned, the recently released SEJA Baseline Survey tells us that two-thirds (68%) of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that people in South Africa are free to choose and express their sexual orientation without fear or judgement. There were no significant differences across different sexes, races or age cohorts.

Almost three quarters (74%) of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that being gay or lesbian was against the values of their community.

It is also interesting to note that this finding was consistent across Indian, African, white and coloured respondents as well as both male and female respondents. It was also consistent across the different age cohorts, as well as the different dwelling and geographic types in which respondents lived.

While these findings are, no doubt, showing promising trends, we do also know that violence and discrimination against LGBTI people still exists.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called violence and discrimination against LGBTI people “one of the great, neglected human rights issues of our day.”

In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution that for the first time recognized homophobic violence and discrimination as human rights abuses that warrant attention at the level of the United Nations.

So what is IDAHOT – or, IDAHOBIT, as it’s called in certain countries – all about?

It was created in 2004 to draw the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and the media to the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI people internationally.

It is said that May 17th has established itself as the single most important date for LGBTI communities to mobilise on a worldwide scale.

And it’s not just about lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people, but really about all those who do not conform to majority sexual and gender norms.

It is estimated that May 17th is now celebrated in more than 130 countries. These IDAHOT activities unite millions of people in support of the recognition of human rights for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

For those who don’t know, the date of May 17th was specifically chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision, in 1990, to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

The First Regional African Seminar on Finding Practical Solutions for Addressing Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression which we hosted here in Johannesburg in March 2016 really was an historic event for us.

With 54 countries are being represented, it sent a clear message to the rest of the continent and the world that the promotion of human rights relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression is a matter of significant importance to South Africa.

As you know, the Ekurhuleni Declaration, which was adopted at the Regional Seminar, contains a number of practical solutions to challenges facing the LGBTI community, and can be divided into eight separate areas:

  • Violence and discrimination
  • Changing Perceptions and Creating Awareness
  • Violence and Discrimination in Educational Institutions and Settings
  • Economic Justice
  • Discrimination and secondary victimisation acts when accessing of healthcare services
  • Victimisation in the criminal justice system and in border control systems
  • Legal support for victims and their families, and
  • The need for data collection.

I am pleased to see that this afternoon’s focused discussions will centre round ways of enhancing the effectiveness of the National Intervention Strategy through the Ekurhuleni Declaration.

For us in South Africa we are extremely proud of what our LGBTI National Task Team has achieved.

It is noteworthy that the NTT itself came about through advocacy, when an NGO wrote a letter to then Justice Minister Jeff Radebe raising concerns regarding corrective rape. The Minister instructed that a meeting be convened in order to attend to the issues raised. Senior government officials from the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster met with representatives from various NGOs in 2011.

Since then civil society partners have played an integral role in the success of the NTT. The NTT is a good example of a very successful partnership between government and civil society and was named in a 2016 report by the UN’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights as a best practice model and international case study of government and civil society co-operation.

The NTT continues its efforts to counter the continued discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity against members of the LGBTI community.  

In this regard the development of a National Intervention Strategy, the establishment of a national Rapid Response Team which meets on a quarterly basis to discuss progress made on pending cases, and the establishment of Provincial Task Teams and Rapid Response Teams led by the provincial DOJCD offices are some of the achievements.

Earlier this year Human Rights Watch said that, from a global perspective –

“… looking back over a tumultuous year, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in many parts of the world, 2017 was grim by any standard.
The most disturbing trend was the scale and frequency of arbitrary arrests, state-sponsored discrimination, and violence against LGBT people.… For activists, it was a year of responding to a seemingly endless cycle of unfolding crises.”

So what practical measures can states take to curb violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons?

They can use new or strengthened anti-hate crime laws – as we are doing with our new Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.

Such laws can play an important role in facilitating the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of hate-motivated violence and in establishing homophobia and transphobia as aggravating factors for the purposes of sentencing.

Some countries establish specialized hate crime prosecution units and invest in improved police training and sensitization and policing guidelines.

Some create national hotlines to report homophobic incidents and undertake surveys to improve hate-crime data collection. 

Others create policies and protocols for ensuring the dignity and safety of transgender prisoners and develop training materials on the rights of LGBT prisoners, whilst others undertake investigations of allegations of torture and ill-treatment of LGBT and intersex detainees.

All these measures are possible, but it can only happen if two conditions are present:

Firstly, if there is the political will to do it, and, secondly, if civil society and government are prepared to work with each other to find solutions.

I think that here, in South Africa, we have shown that we are meeting both these requirements.

Also we must acknowledge positive developments in the attainment of LGBTI rights not only in our own country, but across the globe.

As the Human Rights Watch Report says, despite setbacks, there was remarkable progress:

“Positive court rulings in several jurisdictions enhanced protections for LGBT people, while several countries gave legal recognition to same-sex relationships and transgender identities.   The United Nations General Assembly received its first report on violence and discrimination against LGBT people.”

But despite these successes, more must be done. We cannot lose focus and we cannot lose momentum.

And as we celebrate this day with the rest of the world, the words of American writer, Gore Vidal, ring true, when he said –

“The important thing is not the object of love, but the emotion itself.”

I thank you