"You can blow out a candle / But you can't blow out a fire /The flames begin to catch / The wind will blow it higher". (From "Biko" by Peter Gabriel)
One of the sparks that ultimately led to the end of Apartheid was ignited in 1977 by the brutal death of one of South Africa's most significant political activists and a leading founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. His name was Steven Biko.
While living, his writings and activism attempted to empower black people. He was famous for his slogan "Black is Beautiful", which he described as meaning: "Man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being". Biko and the BCM played a significant role in organizing the protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
On August 21, 1977, he was detained by the Eastern Cape security police and held under Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. The records say that on September 7 "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury."
By September 11 Biko had slipped into a continual, semi-conscious state and the prison's physician recommended a transfer to the local hospital. Biko was, instead, transported 1,200 km to Pretoria – a 12-hour journey which he made lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, alone and still naked, on the floor of a cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage. His death in police detention led to his being hailed as a martyr of the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Today, once again on the African Continent, we are powerless witnesses to the killing of another hero fighting a different kind of apartheid – homophobia. News of the barbaric murder of Ugandan human rights activist David Kato has made headlines around the world. Kato was beaten to death outside his home on January 26 shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine which had published his name and photograph identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. For several months he had been the target of a hate-campaign mounted by a local newspaper, The Rolling Stone.
He had spent much of his life courageously helping those persecuted because of their sexual orientation often repeating his mantra: “Determined to struggle till a yard done to the journey of liberating the LGBTI community from the discrimination and oppressional laws in the name of sodomy!”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both called for an in-depth and impartial investigation into the case, and protection for gay activists. In the meantime James Buturo, the Ugandan Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity, is on record as having declared that "Homosexuals can forget about human rights”.
"David's death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S Evangelicals in 2009," Val Kalende, the woman who heads "Freedom and Roam Uganda," a gay rights group, said in a statement. "The Ugandan Government and the so-called U.S Evangelicals must take responsibility for David's blood."
Africa’s gays are caught in the ideological battle waged in the U.S. by conservative Christian preachers who, through their extensive African communications networks, warn of the dangers posed by homosexuals and present themselves as the true stewards of U.S. evangelicalism. They feel most of the Western world has discarded their anti-gay rhetoric and are therefore seeking fertile new soil to spread their crusades of hate and in the process fill their coffers.
The gay activist group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) issued a statement calling "on religious leaders, political leaders and the media to stop demonizing sexual minorities since doing so creates a climate of violence against gay persons."
In 1977 the brutal circumstances of Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry. He became the face and symbol of black resistance to the oppressive Apartheid regime. As a result, the United Nations Security Council responded by finally imposing an embargo against South Africa followed by trade, sports and cultural boycotts from the rest of the civilized world.
If history, as they say, repeats itself, we can only hope that a similar outpouring of solidarity and support for gays in Uganda, and around the globe, comes out of this senseless tragedy.
Perhaps Kato's death, like Biko's, will not be in vain but will become a catalyst and a turning point. In the United States the shock and grief of the Arizona massacre led to the catharsis of a national communal memorial service and a much needed degree of self-examination. Uganda may have further to go but signs of a mild thaw are already appearing.
An editorial in last week's Daily Monitor of Kampala, Uganda's largest and most influential independent newspaper called for an "honest national dialogue" about homosexuality and said gay Ugandans "enjoy the same rights and protections of the law as heterosexuals. We cannot send them into exile neither, lock them away, or hang them". Too little too late, but a step in the right direction.
In Washington, President Obama released a statement praising Kato's courage and condemning the fact that "At home and around the world, LGBT persons continue to be subjected to unconscionable bullying, discrimination, and hate." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Kato's killing "is a reminder of the heroic generosity of the people who advocate for and defend human rights on behalf of the rest of us -- and the sacrifices they make."
Margaret Mead once said: "never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have".
Emirembe, Steven and David, siyabonga.-R.I.P. Steven and David, thank you.