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Mis-leaders: Understanding homophobia in Africa

We give too much power to our leaders in Africa. We invest them with god-like status and then feel disappointed when they deliberately disregard the public good, or stray from the path we hoped we’d be on. Worse though is the fact that we influence who our leaders are, so African leaders’ (in)action is a reflection of what it means to be an African, and a reflection of ourselves.

A leader has an idea of the “good”. To be a leader, you necessarily have followers who hopefully share your idea of “the good”. Those followers give a lot of power to the leader to know the complexities and nuances of that good, so that they (the leader) can act on their (the followers) behalf.

So, leaders pursue particular actions that are in line with their good, and are accountable to certain stakeholders based on those actions. When they pursue actions that the stakeholders don’t find acceptable they’re out either in a quick and painless fashion (like Mbeki) or a drawn-out and bloody one (many examples, be imaginative).

So effectively we give leaders the power to know what’s best for us, to make decisions for us that structurally limit the decisions we can make in the future. By choosing a particular leader, we choose a particular developmental path to drive — one which is really difficult to reverse along. (If I’m being confusing, imagine deciding to get sterilised, after that, it’s pretty difficult to decide to have children.)

It is difficult though, because the leader’s idea of the good must necessarily come from her/his electorate and from the pressure of her/his own leaders. So this process is cyclical. We inform our leaders about what the “good” is, and s/he is our implementer of this worldview.

Does this mean that African’s are homophobic? Mike Baillie argues that claims that homosexuality is un-African are bankrupt, and simply justifications for violence. So what is African about this situation? Or is that just a hope to classify the unclassifiable, the classified (CIA sense of the word). Nevertheless, Baillie suggests that this cycle of homophobia is self-perpetuating. The more people fear being called gay the more people react against gays in an attempt to differentiate themselves from homosexuality so that they are not the next victim of violence.

What I’m trying to get at is that we inform our own community about its values. Our actions create a sense that we support or are against particular ways of interacting with one another. Silence is part of that action that informs the concept of what our values are. When we don’t stand up against homophobia, we reinforce the idea that homophobia is OK.

The trickle down in fact becomes a trickle up. Slowly our leaders are bolstered by our silence around homophobia and can tacitly assume that as Africans we are all for it. The people then who are allowing insane brutal judgements like the Malawi example to be passed are you and me.

If we allow our leaders to persecute homosexuals, a new African culture will be created. That culture will be violent and narrow-minded and ultimately destructive. If we allow them to do this, we will spend our time hoping that we are not in the next category of people that they will choose to persecute. If you don’t stand up for injustice against other groups, nobody will stand up for injustice against you.

It is essential to no longer allow ourselves to mislead our leaders about what it means to be African. Homophobia is never acceptable and until we start opening our mouths to tell our leaders that that is what we think, we allow them to have too much power and to craft a developmental path for us that is ultimately destructive and dangerous for all of us.


  • Jen Thorpe

    Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on