By Ken Davis
1500 people, women and men, black and white, marched through Johannesburg's inner-city districts of Braamfontein and Hillbrow on October 12 in South Africa's second annual gay and lesbian pride week.
According to Simon Nkoli, MC of the rally, people came from as far away as Cape Town and Durban, Zimbabwe and Botswana, for a week of receptions, parties, picnics, political rallies and concerts.
In the past two years gay organisations have taken advantage of the expansion of democratic rights. Although gay groups and publications have existed for years, there are now fewer restrictions and substantially more space for open debate, demonstrations and community agitation. Gay bars are now officially desegregated, but are still subject to police raids.
ACTUP now has groups in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and there are even Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
However, the climate of violence unleashed by the government is worrying lesbian and gay activists. Simon Nkoli explained that one of the members of his group was murdered in Johannesburg in June. Serious bashings occur in cruising areas.
Nkoli and his co-workers at the Township AIDS Project in Soweto were recently threatened with death by a gang of men armed with guns who hijacked their commuter van. He has also witnessed multiple murders in Sebokeng and on the commuter trains linking Johannesburg and Soweto.
Although the African National Congress and other progressive black organisations have publicly endorsed gay rights, anti-homosexual prejudice remains strong.
Pentecostal churches are evangelising strongly among the Boer and black communities. Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is a born-again Christian who emphasises repressive sexual morality.
Gay organisations have had to take a lead in responding to AIDS. Until this year gay men, mainly white, made up the majority of cases of full AIDS (722 by April 1991). Now HIV is spreading rapidly among heterosexuals in the black communities.
Even the government admits that there will be 200,000 to 300,000 people with HIV by the end of the year, approximately 1% of the total population. The doubling time is estimated to be around eight months.
In Soweto and in Natal some hospitals are already finding rates of up to 10% HIV positive when testing patients coming into casualty wards. Still healthy mothers recently infected with HIV are starting to bring babies with AIDS to primary health care clinics.
Even for whites, HIV therapies are hard to access. Very limited amounts of AZT are available through the health system.
[Abridged from the Sydney Star Observer.]