Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

South Africa after Mandela

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On March 19, BC sociology professor Zine Magubane, a native of South Africa, spoke at the Boisi Center about her home country’s contemporary challenges. The luncheon continued a conversation began at the Boisi Center’s advanced screening of the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in early December, coincidentally on the very day Nelson Mandela died.

Magubane explained that South Africa’s most pressing issues concern the relationship of sexual equality, gender equality, religion, traditional culture, and public life. South Africa’s constitution seeks to protect both human rights and the rights of traditional culture—goals that sometimes conflict. Women’s rights are protected, for example, as are the rights of gays and lesbians. (In fact,South Africa legalized same-sex marriage before the United States did.) Yet in the name of traditional culture, these rights are being undermined. The practice of ukuthwala is a poignant example: what had been a rite of marriage negotiated between families has become a practice of kidnapping young girls and marrying them to adult men. Similarly, the widespread sexual violence against women and the “corrective rape” of lesbians (of which President Zuma has himself been accused) undermines the law’s efforts.

South Africa is in a position to act as a leader on these issues in Africa, where human rights are increasingly being trampled in the name of culture. Uganda recently declared homosexuality illegal; Senegal and Nigeria are contemplating similar steps. Traditionalists argue that efforts to protect women and sexual minorities are impositions of Western values, but many South Africans have stood up for these protections—rural women who organize against the absolute rule of the traditional leadership councils, for example—and there is the hope that these voices will win out in the next decade.