Battle against homophobia at Zimbabwe book fair

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

By Norm Dixon

For the second year in a row, the Zimbabwe government has attempted to ban the participation of a gay and lesbian group in the annual Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare. Despite winning a High Court order against the ban, the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) were forced from the fair on August 4, six hours before it was due to close, after thugs chanting "The president said no" set fire to their stall.

The banning of the gay rights group has sparked international condemnation and threatens the future of one of Africa's premier publishing events.

The Zimbabwe director of information, Bornwell Chakaodza, banned the participation of GALZ to preserve the "nation's cultural health". In contrast to last year, book fair organisers stood firm, saying Chakaodza's injunction had no basis in law.

Chakaodza in 1995 told the fair's organisers in a letter that "Zimbabwean society and government do not accept the public display of homosexual literature" and warned that the government would withdraw its cooperation, nor would President Robert Mugabe open the fair. Organisers said this was an "impossible situation" and cancelled GALZ's registration.

In the ensuing international controversy, Mugabe went on a homophobic campaign, saying that homosexuality was "un-African" and "unnatural" and that gays were "worse than dogs and pigs".

Following the organisers' refusal the succumb to government pressure this year, the Board of Censors issued an order prohibiting GALZ from attending, citing laws relating to the display of "undesirable" literature and a breach of the peace. The board had not seen GALZ's literature — written by academics and church groups — which concerned only legal and constitutional issues.

"There was nothing graphic, let alone pornographic", GALZ administrator Keith Goddard told the South African Weekly Mail and Guardian. The reference to a "breach of peace" was a veiled threat of violence from government supporters, said Goddard.

Sections of the governing ZANU-PF party have whipped up bigotry and incited violence. Tirivanhu Mudariki, a government MP, called upon supporters to rally against GALZ. Another group, Sangano Munhumutapa, led by a prominent ZANU-PF leader, threatened to burn down the Galz exhibit.

GALZ won a High Court ruling on July 31 declaring the Board of Censors' ban null and void, and restraining it from interfering further. On the last day of the fair, a menacing crowd of government supporters surrounded the GALZ stall, setting fire to some literature and forcing the gay rights activists to leave the fair early.

Unlike last year, when the ban was not opposed by any significant section of Zimbabwe society, this year the government's bigotry was condemned by local human rights groups and by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace has described the ban as "unjust discrimination" and the human rights group ZimRights said it "a violation of the right to free expression and equal treatment under the law".

Many international publishers and literary organisations agree that the ban jeopardises the book fair. "We will have to reconsider our future attendance", Peter Ripken, representative of the Frankfurt Book Fair — the world's largest — told the Weekly Mail and Guardian. Because of the "the climate of intimidation and censorship", Ripken said, "Zimbabwe will soon become a pariah state like Nigeria if they go on like this. Why come here when our books may be banned, when our stalls will not be protected from government-instigated mobs?".

The Mugabe government's view that homosexuality is "un-African" is not shared by neighbouring South Africa. South Africa's new constitution prohibits of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and is backed by all political parties, with the sole exception of the odd-ball African Christian Democratic Party. The ANC government has recognised the rights of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and established a monitoring system in the armed forces to ensure that homosexuals are not victimised. Draft legislation on child-care has dropped gender references in regard to adoption and legal recognition of same-sex unions in matrimonial legislation is on the drawing board.

Supporters of human rights are being called on to send messages to the Zimbabwe High Commission, 11 Culgoa Circuit, O'Malley ACT 2606, or fax (06) 290 1680.