Patrick Lumumba’s statements perpetuate lies about same-sex relationships in African history
While other universities have celebrated Pride month, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is preparing to host the proudly homophobic Kenyan Professor Patrick Lumumba, who is scheduled to deliver a public lecture on 24 July as part of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) tenth anniversary celebrations.
An advocate, academic and self-styled restorer of African pride, Lumumba has a large following on various social media platforms, where he has denounced “homosexuality” as “unAfrican” and “unnatural”. Recently, he congratulated Uganda on passing the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, one of the harshest anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the world. It prescribes the death penalty and life imprisonment for Ugandans found “guilty” of the crime of homosexuality and allows for harsh prison sentences for their allies.
Besides these consequences for the “crime” of homosexuality, there have been additional damaging outcomes of the amended law: queer Ugandans are being evicted by landlords because of their sexual orientation, leaving them homeless. Many queer Ugandans have also stopped accessing crucial health services, including sexual and reproductive health provisions and HIV treatment, for fear of prosecution.
The myth of homosexuality as “unAfrican”
Lumumba celebrated the Act’s passing into law by congratulating Uganda and pronouncing on Twitter that “All Africans of goodwill should congratulate Ugandan Parliamentarians and their President Y K Museveni for defying Western Countries and doing the right thing. We must define ourselves as Africans.”
His statement perpetuates the persistent, pernicious lie that homosexuality is “unAfrican”, an idea that has been repeatedly debunked in a burgeoning body of scholarship by academics like Thabo Msibi, Sylvia Tamale, Ifi Amadiume and Stella Nyanzi. Their research demonstrates that same-sex relationships were an accepted part of pre-colonial life.
Msibi, for example, shows in his scholarship that “African men do have, and have always had, sex with one another; the same can be said about women. The assumption that same-sex desire among Africans is a ‘Western disease’ ….. flies in the face of studies stating the contrary”.
He notes that it was, ironically, European ethnographers who first labelled same-sex engagements as “unAfrican”. It is a further irony that the current Anti-Homosexuality Act lies on a continuum of anti-sodomy laws first introduced by the British Empire in 1902, under colonial law that made Uganda a British Protectorate.
Lumumba’s glee at the prospect of queer Africans being executed or imprisoned for life thus, absurdly, stems from the vestiges of the colonial laws that first criminalised same-sex relations in Africa.
Queer and allied staff and students have vociferously objected to Lumumba’s planned lecture on our campus. More than 1,000 students and staff have signed a petition, asking the university’s Vice Chancellor to rescind permission from the EFF to use Sarah Baartman Hall, or any other UCT venue, to host this bigoted speaker who celebrates harm against queers.
The EFF’s decision to host Lumumba is a dereliction of their duty as an opposition party to uphold and protect our country’s Constitution, which prohibits all forms of unfair discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. Their invitation also contradicts the party’s own stance on Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law, against which they protested outside the Ugandan High Commission in April this year.
It is puzzling that the EFF would host a public lecture that potentially contravenes our Constitution, and potentially enables the dissemination of hate speech against queer Africans. In a country with hate crimes resulting in rapes, mutilation and death for queer South Africans, the party plays fast and loose with queer lives by encouraging a speaker who stokes the fires of hatred against this community.
UCT dodges responsiblity
The UCT executive’s refusal to retract permission for this public lecture is as confounding as it is offensive, as Lumumba’s pronouncements stand against values the university purports to uphold. Values like inclusivity, diversity and transformation are empty if the university cannot support these values with tangible action.
Responding to our petition, Interim Vice Chancellor Daya Reddy noted that the executive had approved the EFF’s use of the hall before they knew of Lumumba’s homophobic hate speech. He wrote to me that UCT held no responsibility for the content of a Lecture hosted by an external party: “This would be similar to external corporate, sporting and other events which are hosted from time to time at the university. UCT is not in any way involved in the programme for such events, nor does the leadership necessarily subscribe to the views held or expressed by any speaker at such events”.
“We have noted with great concern his remarks, a concern that has been expressed by many individuals and organisations, and have urged the external host to engage with him around these concerns. We also support any UCT-led engagement, focused on re-affirming the full human rights of members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” he said.
This response dodges responsibility for upholding the values of the institution, which includes values of social justice. Now that UCT has been made aware of it by more than 1,000 students and staff, there is simply no excuse to continue to provide a platform for his homophobic poison, or to pass on the responsibility for a potentially harmful lecture to an external party.
Precedent exists to revoke a speaker’s invitation to lecture at UCT. In 2016, the UCT executive withdrew an invitation to Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish magazine which had published a series of offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. This invitation was withdrawn after consultation within UCT and the wider community. The Vice Chancellor at the time, Max Price, noted that the South African Bill of Rights curtails the right to freedom of expression when the potential for harm exists in unchecked expression. The Bill of Rights qualifies the right to freedom of expression by stating that “The right… does not extend to (a) propaganda for war; (b) incitement of imminent violence; or (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”
Lumumba’s historical pronouncements on queer Africans amount to the incitement of violence, and advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
If they proceed with Lumumba’s planned open lecture, the EFF and UCT will be enabling a known bigot to spread his hatred, and in the process, undermining our Constitution and the dignity of queer Africans. They also risk enabling a culture of harm towards queer Africans across the continent, who already suffer a disproportionate number of hate crimes and human rights abuses.
Barbara Boswell is an Associate Professor of English Literary Studies at UCT. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.