1996 • South African Constitution

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South African Constitution


By the end of the twentieth century, it made less and less sense to limit the history of LGBTI+ emancipation and civil rights to Western countries. In a world where transnational exchanges were quickly increasing, various centers of legal and political action emerged. A major breakthrough for the African continent was the makeover of South Africa after the apartheid system was overthrown in the early 1990’s and Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first black president. As part of this process, legislators spent years writing a new Constitution that would embody the country’s high hopes for a radically new society.

This Constitution was adopted in 1996 and became the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. In doing so, it disrupted the traditional Western narrative of ‘Third World’ countries ‘lagging behind’ and slowly ‘catching up’ to social reform movements in the West. It also showed that the African continent was more diverse than it had often been depicted and should be regarded as an equal partner in discussions about gender and sexuality. At the same time, the high hopes expressed in the South African Constitution have occasionally been frustrating to activists on the ground dealing with the widespread HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country or with continuing homophobic violence (particularly in the form of ‘corrective rape’).

Likewise, activists in other African countries are often still frustratingly far from being able to bring similar changes to their own countries. Yet there does seem to be hope on the African continent. Kenya is looking to decriminalize same-sex relations whilst Angola has already done so and Botswana’s High Court ruled in 2017 in favor of the legal recognition of gender identity for transgender people.

South African Constitution (1996) ⓒ South Africa History Online (SAHO)
South African Constitution (1996) ⓒ South Africa History Online (SAHO)

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