Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance (Zed Books)
by Marc Epprecht
A Review by Alex Halligey
From the homophobic vitriol of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill to the alarming number of hate crime incidents against South African lesbians, Africa’s press regarding sexual tolerance in the last twenty years has been the cause of much local distress and considerable international outrage. Although even using the word tolerance raises one of many contentious concerns around sexuality and its place in social justice; surely sexual difference should not just be tolerated but accepted, even celebrated? It is the should that drives Marc Eprecht’s concise and yet, for that, remarkably detailed exploration of sexuality and how it relates to social justice on the African continent. Much as activists, liberal governments and well-meaning NGO’s may believe in the importance of sexual minority rights, how practicably do they begin to facilitate their protection when rights for human rights sake may not be a compelling enough argument to effect change? Epprecht offers a second approach where public health is used as the primary concern: as all sexual practices, however they may be judged, effect the health of everyone, acknowledging sexual difference and ensuring a safe and protected environment for sexual difference is crucial to the sexual health of all. He does not favour one approach over the other, but sees human rights and public health working in tandem, with flexibility in the complex and diverse political climates throughout Africa in which sexual minorities face discrimination.
African Arguments, the series of books Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa is part of, aims to provide succinct, accessible research on contemporary African issues without losing depth of engagement. In just under two hundred pages, Marc Epprecht manages to do precisely this, faced with a topic that is vast and complicated in its history, geography and the very many stakeholders it involves. At times it seems like all he can do is make clear what he does not wish to say, argue for or against. Yet his precisely worded and keenly felt disclaimers, born out of detailed knowledge and careful thought, slowly build into a delicate but strong argument. Epprecht is based in Queen’s University, Canada, yet researches mainly in Southern Africa. How does he begin to speak for a whole continent, when it is comprised of so many localities? And coming from a university in the developed West, with what authority can he speak about concerns for a continent that may hold very different values to North American and European models of thought?
Foundationally he sets out a careful self-awareness about the dangers of generalization, as well as a wariness of cultural colonization. From there he begins to shape a sense of the continent as a whole in terms of sexuality and negotiating sexual difference that does not lose the specificity of the local, just as he unsettles the binary divide between the global south and north in terms of approaches to sexual freedoms and limitations. He explores conceptions of sexuality in Africa historically: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial, a history that inevitably leads through conquests to the influence of religions. Traditional or original beliefs come to incorporate the Islam and Christianity of conquerors and ultimately shape moral views on sexual practice. He then turns to the more contemporary concern of how the state rules on sexuality, the contention being is the state imposing policy on the people or is it pandering to the sentiment of its voters? Within this framework Epprecht shows that there are no clear champions or oppressors of sexual difference. Histories of climates, terrains, conquests, colonization, religious conversions, state power and public opinion are all working together in intricate ways which affect different manifestations of homophobia in many different parts of Africa, as well as, critically, potential support for sexual difference.
In a complex situation there is not a simple solution and Marc Epprecht offers in conclusion a mixture between outspoken rebellion and tactical maneuvers to change systems from within. He draws on examples from different regions of activist groups and public health NGO’s, with subtly masked sexual rights activism agendas, to show the relative achievements and setbacks of combining human rights and public health approaches in varying ways depending on the context. The book is billed as ‘hopeful’ in outlook and Epprecht himself lays claim to an optimistic approach. Epprecht sees constant questioning, thought, research and negotiation as a way of proceeding that might allow both for more immediate protection of sexual minorities in the present and greater access to and acceptance of sexual minority rights in the future. If his approach is optimistic it is certainly a careful one, where care is the only productive way forward.
Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance is published by Zed Books and is out now.
Alex Halligey is a South African theatremaker and writer. Since 2005 she has worked with a number of not-for-profit theatre companies, using the arts to explore and promote social justice in relation to gender equality, sexual difference and environmental sustainability. She recently completed a Masters in Performance Studies at New York University with a view to extending the confluence of her artistic and social justice interests through research and writing.