May 25th is Africa Liberation Day - a day for Africans to celebrate Africa? Or a day to reflect on the past and dream of the future? Officially - according to the Africa Union website - this year's theme was 'Building and Sustaining Peace Through Sport' and I suppose this is referring to the World Cup in South Africa which starts in three weeks' time. No-one can argue against the fact that sports can support peace-building and break down barriers. In Sierra Leone football was used to bring together previously warring factions of young men and the families of people who had been killed. I read somewhere that German and British troops took time off to play football on Christmas day during World War Two and then went back to killing each other the next day. So although there is a temporary feeling to sport in peace-building, it is a beginning too. Recently two lesbian football teams played in Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, South Africa, watched by some 200 male spectators, with the aim of 'looking for respect' and forming new friendships between the women and the spectators.
Being a lesbian can be a death wish in Khayelitsha, where a gay woman is seen as an affront to masculinity - a way of telling a man she is not for the taking - it's safest not to let it show. So at the match there was more at stake than the satisfaction of winning.
With about 200 sceptical, smirking men in attendance, the players took to the dirt patch looking for respect. And as the smirks broadened into grins in the heat of battle and an epic overtime, respect is exactly what they got.
But a sustainable peace requires more than two hours of football or any other sport on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. In 1996, on the eve of the new South African Constitution, Thabo Mbeki made a famous 'I am an African' speech in which he spoke about what it meant to be an African and - more importantly - who was an African. The speech was laden with reminders of 'ancestors' - the rich resources of the land and the diversity of races and ethnicities in South Africa.
'The constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, and gender of historical origins. It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white. It is this idea, the idea that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, an idea that is also there in the Freedom Charter of 1955, that we have to hold on to when there is any discussion of who is an African.'
Although Mbeki was speaking specifically of South Africa, the speech also spoke to the whole continent, from Tanger in the north to Cape Town in the south. And not unlike the failure of the South African constitution to live up to its inclusiveness and rights for all, the African Union has also failed in living up to its charter on human rights, respect for diversity and the right for every African to have citizenship. The late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who was killed in a car crash a year ago, significantly always referred to Africa Day as Africa Liberation Day and I for one would like to especially remember this great Pan-Africanist who 'spoke truth to power'.
As I think about the recent cruel and harsh 14 years' sentence of hard labour for the Malawian couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, Tajudeen's words 'Don't Agonize, Organize!' ring loud in my mind. In the year since his untimely death, African LGBTI people have struggled against increased homophobia. In Uganda, the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill prescribes the death sentence. In Burundi, homosexuality was made illegal for the first time in the country's history. There has also been an increase in homophobic statements, particularly from religious leaders in Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria and Kenya. So how do we celebrate Africa Liberation Day when large sections of the continent's population are increasingly excluded from citizenship and human rights? When two people who love each other are punished with 14 years' hard labour and not a single African leader speaks; not a single member of the women's movement speaks? One group which has come out in solidarity is the Abahlali baseMondolo Youth League. I will end on their final comment, which speaks truth to power on the price of silence.
'Some will say that they did not speak up when they came for the street traders because they are not street traders. Some will say that they did not speak up when they came for the shack dwellers because they are not living in shacks. Some will say that they did not speak up for the people born in other countries because they were born here. Some will say that they did not speak up for the full freedom of women because they are not women. Some will say that they did not speak up for Abahlali baseMjondolo because they never wore a red shirt. Some will say that they did not speak up for the Gays and Lesbians because they are not Lesbian or Gay.
The first price of our silence is that if we do not speak up for others then there will be no one left to speak up for us.
The second price of our silence is that an injury to one is always an injury to all. Gay and Lesbian people are our neighbours, our relatives, our colleagues, and our comrades. We must never forget that the struggle is connected in different ways.
Let us unite and defend the democracy that our forefathers and foremothers have fought for. Let us show the government and those who try to fight for their place in society by attacking others what real democracy is. Let us insist that Africa belongs to all who live in it.'