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Homophobic violence in South Africa: can the World Cup help?

Published 05th May 2010 - 17 comments - 8455 views -


Several years ago, when I was working as an intern for Reuters in Johannesburg, a colleague and friend of mine took me with him on an assignment to Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, where he would interview a 17-year old rape-victim who was “punished” by a male family friend for being a lesbian.

Back then (mid-2004) South Africa was celebrating its first ten years of democracy. Its constitution was regarded as one among the most illuminated. It banned any form of racial, sexual, cultural and religious discrimination. In particular, the South African constitution was the first in the world to condemn discrimination based on sexual orientation.

This was particularly significant in Sub-Saharan Africa, where homosexuals were constantly harassed by governments such as those of Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma in South Africa’s neighbouring Zimbabwe and Namibia, while homosexual acts were outlawed in several countries in East Africa.

Despite that, episodes of violence against homosexuals – especially in the country’s crime and poverty-stricken townships – kept occurring on a daily basis, targeting lesbians in particular. Rape was still widely used as a “corrective” measure against girls and women whose sexual and social behaviour did not fit or was seen as not fitting within the traditional social structure. When not sexually abused, or in addition to that, some teenagers and young women were beaten up, harassed, tortured and sometimes shot dead for “behaving as men.”

Only a small percentage of these cases were reported to the police and almost none of the perpetrators was arrested, jailed or tried.

Six years later, I am no longer based in South Africa and the upcoming Soccer World Cup tends to be the dominant topic I come across when I read about this country on newspapers and news websites. I have never been a soccer fan – although I did celebrate Italy’s victory against France in the Fifa World Cup final four years ago – but an article on a football-related topic got my attention today.

The story was about a lesbian soccer team, whose members use sport to raise awareness over homosexual women rights in South Africa’s townships. The “Chosen Few”, which were founded in 2004 by the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), have come a long way since then: they won the bronze at the 2006 Chicago Gay Games and at the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association Cup in London in 2008.


South African lesbian soccer team Chosen Few. Photo from The New Black Magazine

Yet they are forced to train in what the Mail & Guardian reporter Barry Moody described as a “scrappy dirt wasteground bordered by a large puddle” close to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg city centre. According to one of the team’s best players, the Chosen Few were not allowed to access any other field they tried to use for trainings.

Lesbians are still victims of prejudice and violence in South Africa’s townships and those among them who play soccer are particularly exposed to harassment and rape. Last year, a man accused of taking part in a gang-rape and murder of a lesbian soccer player was sentenced to life imprisonment in a judgment which was regarded as extremely important by human right activists in the country.

Bloggers in this platform highlighted the pros and cons of staging  the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa (Johan Knols’ “World cup soccer 2010: a kick in the nuts of the poor”) and I think I can safely add a pro to that list: an event such as the Fifa Wolrd Cup can surely help raise awareness over several human right issues which are crucial for South Africa as well as for the rest of the continent.

Discriminations against homosexuals is certainly one of them, and the fact that lesbian soccer players in South Africa are among the main targets of homophobic attacks is a sad reality which could easily be addressed by the event’s organizers in advocacy campaigns and promotional messages.

After all, South Africa has been at the forefront of some major changes in the acknowledgement of gay rights in Africa. It was the first country in the continent to allow gay adoptions and same-sex marriages.

This is while in Zimbabwe's former opposition leader and current prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai backs president Robert Mugabe when he says that gay rights have no place in the country, Malawi prosecutes gay couples for illegally tying the knot and Uganda considers punishing homosexual intercourses with life imprisonment and death.

Soccer watchers from these countries and beyond will be paying a religious attention to anything related to the World Cup in the next months. Maybe this is just another opportunity South Africa, as a host country, should not miss.


  • Lara Smallman on 05th May 2010:

    It will be interesting to see how the country reacts to being exposed to the world media in the coming months. Will it become more open to debating such human rights abuses or perhaps shy away?

  • Andrea Arzaba on 05th May 2010:

    Let’s hope international exposure will change this attitude towards gay citizens

  • Tiziana Cauli on 05th May 2010:

    I guess what’s happening for HIV/AIDS, with president Zuma disclosing the outcome of his HIV test and the government launching a massive testing campaign - as opposed to the denialism which marked South Africa’s health policies for too many years -is already a sign of how South Africa is going to react to the media attention the country is getting.

    Unfortunately this particular issue does not get a lot of attention outside South Africa. The country laws are considered as gay-friendly and nobody - or almost - sees what really happens out there.

  • Johan Knols on 06th May 2010:

    Hello Tiziana,

    I am afraid that the lesbian topic will get little, if any, attention during the WCS. The country has much bigger issues then homosexuality unfortunately. (see:

  • Tiziana Cauli on 06th May 2010:

    I know Johan, and that’s really sad. At the same time though, discrimination against homosexuals has become a widely recognised issue in the entire continent. Tutu even headed, recently, a group of civil society organizations asking the Uganda government to drop a series of newly proposed regulations which would make homosexual sex punishable with life imprisonment and death. All this attention from human rights activists and leaders will hopefully help raise attention to the issue of homophobia in South Africa, whose laws - on the other hand - ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 06th May 2010:

    The issue you raised is very important, Tiziana. I have a local story related to it. In Lithuania, my homeland, homophobia is terribly widespread. If there was “no sex in the USSR”, then there are “no LGBT people” in Lithuania. On Saturday 8th of May, there was a Pride planned, with around 300 participants, mostly foreigners because it’s still considered bad taste to support LGBT rights. A court decided to ban it, saying there would be a lot of violence and they police force “cannot assure security”. This is happening in a country that boasts being the geographical centre of Europe!

  • Tiziana Cauli on 06th May 2010:

    thanks for sharing this story. I think the homophobia issue in Africa is so difficult to highlight and address because the same attitude is so widespread in Europe and in the Western world in general. This is not perceived as an issue at all by a great part of the international public, which makes it extremely difficult to raise awareness on it and fight against it. South Africa is actually miles ahead of many European countries when it comes to gay rights, but townships are still extremely violent and women tend to be the main victims of sexual crimes. Of course those who are seen as outsiders or “weird” tend to be more exposed.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 06th May 2010:

    Here gender steps in: the perceptions of what a woman should be like, and a man. All these stories of raping a woman in order to make her “straight”... It’s sick.

    I agree with you that the same malicious attitudes are widespread in the Minority world, despite the common assumption of a land of freedom and human rights. We have to admit the problem is there in order to do something about it.

    I’m waiting for the World Cup to see if the expectations for it would be fulfilled. I really hope we will not end up with only pictures of football players and their comments on that beautiful goal, and then all the tourists packing their stuff after one too many.

  • Aija Vanaga on 06th May 2010:

    On my way of seeing it, homosexuality is an internal topic that relates closely with culture, perception of things, openness.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 07th May 2010:

    @Giedre: The thing is, football players are there to play football and journalists are there to report on what’s happening. So unless the organizers or the government do something to highlight this and other issues, chances are we are only going to see goals, gossip and beautiful South African locations as part of some tourism promotion campaign. Which is fine, and useful for the country as well, but not nearly enough considering the money which is being spent on this event…

    @Aija: It’s true, Aija. Homosexuality is perceived differentely in different societies and countries, but that does not change the fact that discrimination and violence are not acceptable, no matter where they occur, don’t you think?

  • Aija Vanaga on 12th May 2010:

    This is one angle of it. I do not agree with violence and discrimination itself, but I do consider society, it’s development speed, speed of acceptance and adaption. It is not easy for me to adapt to two kissing men next to me and I conisder myself open person. You can’t ask people to switch like it would be just other white bread from other baker for breakfast table.
    And there are more issues where discrimination and violence is more urgent to be solved, like women rights, children rights (no matter of sexual orientation). I would put right to live before open sexual freedom.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 12th May 2010:

    Hi Aija,
    I am not entirely sure what we are discussing here. This was not a blog post about kissing in public or forcig people to watch things they prefer not to see. This was a blog post about violence on women and minors (teenage girls) based on the fact that they are lesbians. Women rights and children rights are involved, as you can see. This is the thing about human rights. You can’t really set priorities here as you would do for other issues, like health or economy, as they are strictly linked to each other. It works the same for discrimination. I know there are places where people are not free to determine their sexual orientation, but South Africa, luckily, is not one of them. This is why a debate over this issue is possible in the country and this is why I hope it will get enough attention.

  • Hussam Hussein on 19th May 2010:

    I really hope that the exposition towards media in the next months will help in general the development of human rights in the country.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 19th May 2010:

    And in the continent, I would say. Thanks for your comment Hussam.

  • Ian Sullivan on 19th May 2010:

    This is an interesting post but I can’t see how the World Cup will do much on this subject. After all, name me a single international footballer who will be playing who is openly gay?

    FIFA aren’t interested in this aspect and the South African gov will not want to bring it up. I think if any social issues get talked about it will be poverty and crime.

    @aija - you reduce this topic down in a bit of a simplistic way…..and surely every person has the same right to express their sexuality?

  • Tiziana Cauli on 19th May 2010:

    Hi Ian, thanks for your comment. You’re right about the male soccer environment - at least at the highest levels - not being very gay-friendly.

    South Africa though is a place where amazing things can happen. I’m not expecting any miracles, but do you remember when some years ago Mandela - when he was still in a relatively good shape - announced that his first son had died from Aids?

    I know stigma against people living with HIV is a huge issue in the country, and I know Madiba’s greatness won’t probably be equalled by any other political leader in this century.

    But I think messages against discrimination are generally welcomed by the South African public and I can’t see why they could not address homophobia.

    The government does not need to be the one who speaks out on this topic. There are a lot of relevant people who could do that during the world cup, regardless of their sexual orientation.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 06th June 2010:

    A very interesting column on gay rights and influencies from aid organizations and donor countries in Africa.

    Worth reading!

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